A love for theatre and psychology led Chattanooga Theatre Centre alum Kelseigh Garrett to pursue a career in helping those with mental illness through expressive arts as therapy. Kelseigh is working towards completing a Master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling with a specialization in expressive arts therapy at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Expressive arts therapy facilitates creative processes through the most meaningful medium for each person and situation, using a variety of approaches such as music, drama, dance, writing and visual arts as therapeutic tools in an integrated way to initiate change within mental health treatment.
“I have this love for theatre and I have this love to provide people with the tools to promote positive growth and healing and then, when I found expressive therapies, I found everything that sustains me come together,” she said.
Even before moving to Chattanooga when she was twelve, Kelseigh would participate in the youth summer camps at the CTC while visiting her grandmother, June McBride, who has also served on the CTC board of directors. Both she and her mom, Wendy Garrett, have acted in CTC productions over the years. Kelseigh has performed in Love/Sick, Murder on the Nile, and Miracle on 34th Street on the CTC stage. Wait Until Dark directed by Bob Willie was one of her first shows at the CTC.
“Including working backstage and on stage at the CTC and in college, I have been involved in about forty shows,” she said. “Getting to play different roles with the same people and getting to see those same people in other roles,” as well as the relationships she established here, were parts of what she has enjoyed about the CTC.
Kelseigh graduated from Chattanooga High School Center for Creative Arts in 2012 and graduated from Carson Newman College in 2016 with a double major in communications and psychology.
“I wanted to graduate in four years, so I took three classes in the summer before my senior year, while working and doing 9 to 5 at CTC. So, when I had time before and after rehearsal, I was doing homework. But being in the show, I needed that for myself. It was something I enjoyed,” she said.
Kelseigh discovered her specialized career path while working on her undergraduate degree.
“I was looking into counseling programs and I didn’t know drama therapy was a profession and I found this and thought, this is fantastic! I could utilize drama and psychology,” she said. “I was accepted at Lesley University, but the cost of living in the Boston area is astronomical. They didn’t have a low residency program in drama therapy at first, but all the performance arts can be utilized in expressive arts, which they did have as a low residency program, and that really appealed to me.
“Things that I had already been doing at a performance level, I didn’t realize could be done at a therapeutic level,” she explained. By taking the low residency college option path, Kelseigh is only required to spend three weeks each summer on campus, taking the rest of her classes online and completing the required hours of field counseling experience. This allows her to continue working in Chattanooga at Erlanger Behavioral Health Hospital while completing most of these required hours through an internship at Agape Youth Behavioral Health in East Brainerd.
To graduate in May, she is required to have 700 supervised hours.
“I feel like my whole life is filled with mental health, between the demands of my work and education, but I do love it. And I do love educating people on the importance of mental health and destigmatizing it,” she said.
Through her field experience hours, Kelseigh has worked with children and adults and has found that, “through different art forms you can address different appropriate communication and social skills, emotion regulation and emotion identification.” She said, “My thesis that I’m working on is on the neurological approach on integrated arts and how arts change and shape the brain.”
She explained, “The use of visual art, for example, involves your motor skills and your occipital lobe and your brain is just making these connections that you just can’t do through verbal processing. The creative arts offers a different avenue to explain yourself when words are hard. If you’re really sad and have this sinking feeling, it can be really difficult to explain that verbally. Using arts, drama to work through that sadness by drawing your sadness or creating a sound to express that. Even like creating something, whoever I’m working with, it gives them a sense of accomplishment and is beneficial, helps create coping skills and boosts mood and affect.”
Kelseigh said this type of expressive arts therapy has been found to be beneficial with prison inmates and, “utilizing dance movement therapy with victims of trauma helps them reclaim parts of their body.”
She said, “They offered a course over the summer, with music therapy, using your voice to re-empower yourself. The creative arts in Chattanooga is growing and it’s such an artsy community, there are people already doing some of this work. As mental health becomes less stigmatized, people are looking for more therapies that appeal to them and work for them.”
Kelseigh said creative arts talent is not required for this type of therapy to be effective.
“One of my favorite things about utilizing the expressive arts in therapy is that you don’t have to have any kind of skill in creative arts,” she said. “Expressive arts therapy is more about the process of engaging in the arts, rather than the final product.”
She hopes that this type of work and her thesis will help people see the importance of the arts.
“I feel like it validates the arts in general,” she said. “The arts are typically underfunded or are not part of school curriculums like they should be. And I feel it adds further validity to creative arts as a form of therapy, as a therapeutic tool. Instead of art and therapy, it’s art as therapy.”
Kelseigh said, “I’m really passionate about working with everybody. I feel mental health is so underreported. I really like working in an inpatient setting, because I feel like the people in this setting are significantly underserved.”
She said drama therapy is being used in schizophrenia studies and with those with “major depressive disorders and providing them with the tools to deal with when they leave. It depends on the person, the day, for what type of expressive arts is used, meeting the person where they are at. The benefit is that it’s an added tool. We might have a session where everything is verbal and another where the patient says they don’t know how to explain it. So, I say, okay let’s draw it or dance it. And just being involved in the arts in general is healing; it’s feeding you. Writing down poetry when you’re sad or happy.”
Kelseigh said she is thankful to have had a lot of support from friends and family to help her along this journey and “at the end of the day, I have to be really thankful for helping people.”
By Tammy Knotts | Writer and CTC Parent Volunteer
Posted December 3, 2019