Arts in the Aftermath: Helping Kids Heal From Natural Disasters

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, natural disasters have further compounded the disruption to the lives of families and children across the United States.

During one of the worst fire seasons on record in the West, a series of major wildfires burned down thousands of homes and millions of acres of land, displacing hundreds of thousands of families. And in the Atlantic Basin, this hurricane season has already made many names for itself, with a record forecast of 25 predicted storms by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For children already navigating the strangeness of a COVID school year, the uncertainty and fear from facing natural disasters add an acute level of stress that can lead to lingering emotional trauma down the line.

Disaster relief efforts are increasingly incorporating arts-based healing and self-expressive activities like drawing, writing, music-making and dancing into their treatment plans to help young survivors safely process their experiences. Programs like Save the Children’s Healing and Education Through the Arts (HEART) have provided more than 350,000 children around the world arts-based ways to share their feelings, including social and emotional recovery work following recent hurricanes in the U.S.

But in some ways, using the arts to alleviate trauma is a re-discovery of an old cultural phenomenon.

“Humans have used the arts consistently to get through things for thousands of years,” said Cathy Malchiodi, Ph.D., a psychologist and expressive arts therapist who works with survivors of natural disasters. “But what’s nice about the last 10 or 15 years has been the advances in the neuroscience of understanding the brain’s and body’s response to how the arts help make people feel safe again and keep them socially engaged following trauma.”

Giving Voice to Trauma

Just two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017, the non-profit arts organization Fundación Casa Cortés created a temporary school, “Educa Cortés School” to provide nourishment of body and spirit to the community.

The children who lived through Hurricane Maria experienced the terror of 150 miles per hour winds and witnessed the destruction of their homes and schools. The storm also cut power, leaving many in the dark. Family members and friends were injured or killed. The Educa Cortés program provided arts-based activities and therapy groups for emotional support and social connection with other children coping with devastating losses from Hurricane Maria.

The school created an art gallery classroom where students gathered to view artwork and engage in discussions and reflection. Another activity asked students to draw and illustrate “My storm” to express and share their experiences. Art therapists have observed that following a natural disaster, children often have difficulty expressing their experiences in words due to either stress-induced language development issues or the emotional pain of recall. Art forms that do not require verbal recollection, like drawing or painting, can help “make the invisible visible” and may be essential to the recovery process.

Music and movement are other effective arts-based tools for managing traumatic stress, said Dr. Malchiodi. “If you look at trauma literature, there are qualities there in terms of soothing repetition, being able to eventually tell one story in a way that sometimes replaces the trauma narrative. All these things are natural pieces to what the arts can do as a phenomenon.”

In her trauma work over the years, Dr. Malchiodi makes sure to incorporate arts that are culturally resonant to the people affected. “I need to understand what this [disaster] is for you as a community and try to help them explore what things that they already do as a community to self-soothe.  Culturally, it can be a lot different in different parts, even in the same country.”

Understanding factors like a person’s spiritual beliefs and where they find meaning can help therapists develop arts-based programming that speaks more to the survivor — and in turn, helps them regain their own voice.

From Trauma to Growth

Following a natural disaster, children may feel a loss of security and safety and symptoms of anxiety or depression.  While most young people recover from the adverse symptoms of trauma within a year or two, around 10% of children and adolescents develop chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from negative life events like natural disasters.

Participating in the arts — through the act of creation or appreciation — has been found to reduce physiological markers of trauma, helping children regain a sense of control and calm. Following the 2008 China earthquakes, children who were given a month of calligraphy lessons had reduced cortisol levels and fewer self-reported PTSD symptoms.

Other research studies have found promising evidence that the arts can help children deal with the psychological fallout of traumatic experiences brought on by a natural disaster including depression and grief.

Three years after surviving a major earthquake in Peru, a youth group participated in an arts-based research project reflecting on their experiences since the disaster. Participants were asked “to use photography to express their ideas on three subjects: first, what they considered to be their personal strengths; second, what or who had helped them most since the earthquake; and third, how they felt they had changed since the earthquake.” During subsequent research interviews, themes of post-traumatic growth emerged organically, with the arts surfacing as a recurring source of exploration and healing. Participants reported developing a stronger sense of life purpose and perspective on their experiences and new-found freedom to move forward, a hallmark of the critical meaning-making stage of grief.

“Expressive arts therapies don’t seek to eliminate suffering but rather to transform it creatively. It proposes to do something with the lived experience, to grant it significance and value through the transformative act of poetic imagination.”

– TAE Perú. (2008). Restaurando la capacidad de imaginar [Restoring the capacity to imagine].

Following a natural disaster, both the product and process of arts-related therapies are important.  The art products can help therapists and parents gain insights into children’s initial emotions and attempts to absorb the events into their own personal history. But the artistic process – and providing freedom, a sense of safety, and confidence – is the most important component for the healing and regenerative power of art.

Chronic Disaster: Using the Healing Arts During COVID

The arts can provide solace in even the most trying of times.

But unlike a hurricane or wildfire, the COVID-19 pandemic is not a singular event. The trauma isn’t acute and finite like the blunt force of a blade, but more akin to a chronic collection of horrors, big and small, often found in times of war. “We’re being traumatized – all of us – somehow, but we don’t know what that is yet because this isn’t over,” Dr. Malchiodi said. “We don’t know what the trauma reactions ultimately are going to be.”

Nowadays, instead of being on-site to provide expressive arts therapy, Dr. Malchiodi has pivoted to telehealth online using sound and movement to help foster meaningful connections during the pandemic.

“Musicality has really worked pretty well,” she said. “People really enjoy it as it gets playful. And people really need to play right now.”

“It’s not a cure,” Dr. Malchiodi added. “But in that moment, when they’re just laughing and getting that kind of hormonal rush in the good chemicals, it’s like a micro-moment in time. You’re escaping all this stuff that’s going on, it’s still going to be there. But you have that moment.”

This is article is a part of IAM Lab’s regularly updated COVID-19 NeuroArts Field Guide. Be sure to check the Guide for the latest, evidence-based tips on how the arts can support our wellbeing during the pandemic.

We would also like to hear from you: Are you, your loved ones or colleagues dealing with specific issues and want to learn more about art-based solutions? Are you already using the arts to help you cope? 

Please share your thoughts, ideas and concerns with us at Be well and stay safe.

Written and reported by IAM Lab Communications Specialist Richard Sima. Richard received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins and is a science writer living in Baltimore, Maryland. 

Image credit: Unsplash / Nicole Leeper

Art Therapy COVID-19 Mental Health Public Health Trauma