Art Therapy in Juvenile Detention: Just one of those Days.

Art Therapy in Juvenile Detention

By: Erin Kemp, ATR


Today was one of those days.

I LOVE my job, and I love working with my students, but some days I fall into their negativity, and it drags me down little by little. I’ve felt the nagging weight of compassion fatigue, and I’ve moved on from my clinical work into this incredible studio environment that fits me like a T. So now, in my art as therapy classroom, I don’t experience those same feelings and yet sometimes I can’t help but be personally offended when a flood of “man, I hate this class” and “this project sucks” hits me head on.

I want to say… This isn’t a class! This is your studio, your safe place, your haven. Your relaxed, calm environment where your favorite R&B music plays, people talk a little more softly, and you get the chance to be the complete boss of your artwork (with the exception of an ever-increasing catalogue of gang symbols!) But negativity is like the plague. It spreads around here like a wildfire, and I realized today that I’m not yet to the point where I can be immune to its flames. Don’t bulletproof vests only take a certain number of bullets before they can be penetrated? Well, today I think I had a slew of bullets and by the time my last class of the day came in, I was at the end of my rope.

So, what did I do? I acknowledged it. I asked why folks were down. I figured chances were every student was not anxious about court or upset about something their lawyer told them earlier today- they had just caught the negativity bug and couldn’t shake it.  I also completely scratched my lesson plan, a beautiful and valued privilege of “teaching” art in detention, and did a Lyric Analysis drawing. We listened to a song (“A Dream” by Common), and I had the students follow along with the lyrics (I pulled up the song on youtube and took the lyrics out of my stash of songs that match each of the character traits we study here, as well as some that are just meant to inspire). They then chose their favorite line, one they connected with and had meaning in their life, wrote out the lyric on their drawing paper and brought it to life through images. This project left plenty of room for interpretation, and luckily they liked the song I chose (note: this does not always happen)!

The negativity wasn’t gone, but their hands and minds were busy, and in my mind that counts for a lot! Throughout the class, there was crumpled paper and mumbles about giving up, but I floated my way around the room, and we all made it through the hour barely any drama. I was frustrated, but sometimes I forget how many reasons they have to feel down. They’re burdened with guilt, shame, worry, desperation, anxiety, and fear and while they might revel in the structure of our program here, they still constantly struggle to cope with feelings way too big to grasp.  Even though my students have committed crimes, I have to maintain my compassion for them and my view of them as “just kids” to be good art therapist. Sometimes, just by writing it out, I can refocus my view and harness my own negativity to rise above theirs and continue to be at least one predictable constant in their lives.


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