Confronting the Unspeakable: When the human experience can't be reduced to words / by Jess Linton

“Human experience cannot be entirely reduced to words, conceptualised in words, explained in words, or understood or remembered through cognitive and conscious processes. Expressing how it feels to love and hate, to be traumatised or to suffer depression may involve far more than struggling to find the ‘right words’…”

                          ~ Shelagh Cornish [2011; 4] Specialist CAMHS, Derbyshire Healthcare Foundation Trust (DHCFT)

Our work in Kathmandu even before the tragic earthquake that hit the country on Saturday offered vital psycho-social support for displaced populations in Nepal. As we start to plan how we can respond to such devastation in and around the capital, where Art Refuge UK has been based for nearing ten years, it has been important to unpick some of the main benefits of offering art therapeutic interventions specifically to displaced children and families.

The initial work that Naomi and I delivered for Art Refuge UK in March and April really reinforced the power of the art-making process and the place of the image for supporting people to work through/ name/ realize those thoughts, feelings and experiences that we might not even have words for. Our work often supports  children and families who have suffered highly complex and traumatic experiences of disaster, whether natural events, such as: earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes; individual and personal events, such as: a death of a loved one or child victimization, or man-made disaster, such as: war and violence. These disasters often lead to a tragic loss of home as well as family members and loved ones; disorientation; fear and anxiety; sleeplessness and social concerns such as heightened poverty etc. Many children caught up in a larger event will experience a combination of man-made, natural and individual disasters (Orr, 2007). 

We often name traumatic or ‘horrific’ experiences as “unspeakable”. We can’t ‘go there’ - we don’t want to or we physically or psychologically can’t. To me, this has felt like one of the most vital offerings that art therapy can give our clients. In an age where story-telling and oral histories seems as alive as ever, art therapy can offer a unique space that doesn’t force our clients to delve any deeper than they want to or share any more than they are ready to. But whilst also encouraging them to find their place in this safe space to process complex trauma in the best way for them as individuals, so that they can stand strong and start rebuilding their lives.

We often observe a remark or a raise of the eyebrow as a client is guided by the art-making and the images in front of them, finding their way to access and confront difficult but important memories, experiences and feelings. The subtlest of marks or a confrontation with an image can take them to this place and it may well be hidden under layers of meaning and symbolism that is untraceable to anyone else. So our witnessing without excavating for anything more than what we are offered feels extremely important. 

Thinking specifically about working in this context where clients have been living under violent regimes and have suffered persecution, have lost loved ones, their homes and aspects of their personal identity, we celebrate and draw on Art Therapy for its support in a number of other areas:

  • offering an opportunity to reclaim and own the space, and their time within it
  • inviting clients to use the materials to express themselves as they want and need to, with no right or wrong way
  • giving clients a time and space for themselves to celebrate who they are and all that they bring
  • allowing clients to express themselves through the art making and sharing what is made with the therapist: helping individuals to understand and learn more about themselves (including their strengths, their coping strategies etc)
  • encouraging clients to say it how it is: clients might chose to discuss the work that they have produced with the art therapist (or in an art therapy group) which might help the client to explore their feelings, emotions and difficult experiences - or they might chose not say it verbally at all;
  • providing a space to hold, understand and value the equally important bits that clients choose not to verbalise; held safely within the art making and the art image
  •  helping clients to realize their worth: seeing the positive contributions they can make, the skills they have, and the right they have to own their own space, time and materials
  • developing imagination, spontaneity, and a sense of own identity and needs: which in turn can build their confidence and resilience, as well as coping skills
  • offering a time and space for families to play together, learn together and enjoy just belonging together
  • offering a bridge between the children, parents and other vital services such as education, health and community services: helping clients to join things up but also realise and see to their own unique needs

When we are able to offer this external safe space that in turn offers the development of these different layers we can build hope that clients will be able to find their own internal safe space, where they can celebrate their resilience and independence.


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