Art as therapy in Samoa

Dr Patricia Fenner has been incorporating art therapy groups into mental health initiatives in the Pacific Island nation of Samoa.

On the South Pacific Island nation of Samoa, twenty minutes drive from the capital city Apia, is the Tiapapata Art Centre. Perched on a hillside and surrounded by jungle, it is here where victims of abuse learn to express themselves through art classes in drawing, pottery and woodblock as part of an ongoing art therapy program called Fa’alaiga o Lagona - Expressions of Emotion.

“It is here where thoughts are put into motion to express feelings that are repressed,” explains Tupou Sili, a senior mental health nurse. “What is thought is revealed in action. This is the reason why they are creating these images - however many colours they use for the painting, these express the feelings that are buried within.”

Mental health and well-being is a recent national focus in Samoa, and the idea of art therapy as part of the mental health promotion was a new initiative. With 200,000 citizens in the island country, the sense of community identity is strong, and cultural input became a central dimension to the project.

Two groups participate in the art therapy session. The Samoa Victims Support Group is a shelter for young women who suffered violence and trauma in the family environment, and the Goshen Trust provides support and rehabilitation service for people with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar illnesses.

Dr Patricia Fenner co-ordinates the Art Therapy Program at La Trobe University, and was approached by the Asia-Australia Mental Health Program to run art therapy workshops for staff in the Samoan health care system.

“I’d never been to Samoa and when the call came through I had to look it up on a map,” says Dr Fenner. “Working on this project has been a rewarding experience. I travelled to Samoa to advise and support the program, but I figured I was there to learn as much from them as they were from me.“

Art therapy is a relatively new therapeutic discipline. It has its origins in mental health initiatives in the United States and the UK, and has strong links to Anglophone countries. Applying these principles in a Samoan context provided Dr Fenner with an interesting challenge.

Art therapy group in Samoa“There’s nothing like being in other cultures to actually drive home just how euro-centric and euro-dominant your discipline can be,” She says. “Samoa has the same issues you would find in mental health in Australia or New Zealand - a lack of awareness and a lack of understanding as to what a mental health issue is.”

“The notion of self within the Samoan context is a much more multi-dimensional one than we have here in Australia, where we are far more individualistic. The whole conceptualisation of what might be a mental health issue is different.”

The project has taken care to involve the community in the approach, and incorporate local beliefs and practices into the art therapy groups. A public exhibition of the artworks was held in the foyer of a government building in Apia to increase public awareness of the program.

“It was important for the general community to actually see the capacity of people who might have been put to the side in some ways, not necessarily intentionally, but perhaps through lack of awareness,” Dr Fenner says. “It’s about giving these people a voice and allowing the community to see them as something other than victims. They’ve got a lot to say through their art.”

Dr Fenner’s experience has also encouraged her to incorporate culturally responsive practices into her art therapy courses at La Trobe University, and to pass on her findings in a practical sense. She’s also had interest in adapting these successful practices in other countries in the South Asia Pacific nations.

“This is a growing area, there's no question about that. And each will be different, even though I would imagine there will be a lot of similarities as well.” says Dr Fenner.

Photos by Steve Percival (Tiapapata Art centre) and Margaret Goding (Australia-Asia Mental Health).