New wave of counseling finds a niche in Omaha

photo courtesy Omaha Therapy and Arts Collaborative

Kamrin Baker
Online Reporter

Bright blue walls cover the year-old Omaha Therapy and Arts Collaborative building on 87th street, and inside, in between paint brushes, toys and psychology textbooks, expressive arts therapist Betsy Funk and her many clients create art.

The establishment contains a complete art studio, outdoor garden, three individual offices and monitored playrooms. Funk, a licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner (MHP) practices expressive arts therapy, rather than conducting a typical “talk therapy” session.

This more nuanced form of counseling has taken over the mental health field and challenges clients to heal and confront their issues in a more creative manner.

Art therapy is a mental health practice or profession that combines human understanding and psychological theories with artistic activities to help clients improve their psychological health, according to the American Art Therapy Association.

Funk builds upon classic visual art practices like painting and drawing, with other expressive behaviors like music, dancing and creative writing in both one-on-one appointments and group sessions.

“People in this field are starting to realize that talk therapy doesn’t work for everybody,” Funk said. “This creative approach allows for coping and finding a place of mindfulness that talk therapy just doesn’t reach. Expressive arts therapy provides added context for stories and clients, and I’m seeing a lot more professionals embracing it and training to use it in their facilities.”

Although anyone who has stepped into a bookstore can spot a mindfulness coloring book a mile away, real art therapy takes an extensive amount of training and education. Funk always liked to incorporate art in her therapy practices, but she knew she needed to learn how to do it properly. Despite her many degrees in social work, Funk spent four years traveling back and forth from Omaha to Sarasota, Florida to complete clinical supervised sessions and intense training regimens.

And this work paid off. Universities are increasing their art therapy programs as the profession develops further and becomes more prominent. About 35 colleges in the U.S. offer graduate art therapy programs, according to Art and Business News.

“Expressive arts therapy invites people to an art process with a clinical purpose,” Funk said. “There are still medical expectations to fulfill, but by getting people to create something from their core, it allows us to process and harvest what they’re going through. We want to provide an outlet for clients to build sensory motor processing and expression. This art isn’t necessarily meant to be aesthetically pleasing, but rather a physical manifestation of emotion.”

In fact, Funk took her group therapy session to the University of Nebraska at Omaha in March as a part of Disability Awareness Month. Student and Network for Disability Awareness director Hannah Opp invited Funk to touch on the importance of mental health on campus.

“People usually divide disabilities in their heads into two categories: mental and physical,” Opp said. “We wanted to do an activity that was calming and could help multiple people. Anxiety is huge in a college atmosphere, and Betsy confronts that in a way that accommodates students that have different therapeutic needs.”

Opp simply keyed in a Google search to find art therapists in the Omaha area, and while Funk was first on the list, she found several other avenues in the metro. She advised students to experiment with different forms of therapy and treatment like music and art therapy, animal therapy and mindfulness if they are dealing with mental health conditions.

Eighty-two percent of 25 Omahans questioned in a survey conducted on April 3, 2017 on a Survey Monkey survey distributed on Facebook, knew what art therapy was. Funk said this is an indicator Omaha Therapy and Arts Collaborative has established a name for itself in the area.

“I wanted to form a community where people feel they deserve to be in a beautiful space no matter their issues and stories,” Funk said. “People are intimidated by the concept of expressive arts at first because they’re conditioned to believe they aren’t allowed to be creative past a certain age. This therapy changes that perception.”

Although Funk typically works with children, her practice reaches all ages. She said one of her favorite experiences is her collaboration with Fontenelle Elementary School. The school gathers girls of different ethnicities who were typically quiet and socially isolated to engage in expressive arts. The goal is to bring people out of their shells and teach them use these skills beyond organized activities.

No matter the exact format of art therapy, its escalation in the mental health field is telling of its effectiveness.

“We help people find their own strength,” Funk said. “I’m not the answer to their problems, but the medium in which they will discover their solutions.”