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Healing through art

Eileen McCormick / Khmer Times No Comments Share:

Australian-Japanese Hiratsuka Niki had been through traumatic experiences that caused her years-long anxiety. She knew she needed to heal and sought the help of art therapy. Now, she actively facilitates art therapy sessions in Vietnam and Cambodia – countries that have seen some of the most devastating conflicts in modern times. With an advanced diploma in Transpersonal Art Therapy from the College of Complimentary Medicine and a license from the Australian Association of Holistic and Transpersonal Counsellors, she continues to help pave the road for mental and emotional healing. Eileen McCormick shares her talk with the art therapist.

Good Times2: What got you into art therapy?

Hiratsuka: I grew up in Sydney and studied philosophy there. Years after my graduation, I became a full-time teacher in Hanoi, Vietnam. But I suffered from a lot of anxiety that I did not feel like teaching was really my thing. It caused me self-doubts and general stagnation in my life. I came back to Sydney to deal with my anxiety. I had talk-therapy and it really worked really well for me so it sort of pushed me to get a degree in psychology so I can also help other people. However, while doing my psych degree, I just got physically and mentally sick that it took me over a year to get to a place of good health. It was in this time when I stumbled on a degree in Transpersonal Art Therapy.

Expressions through drawing and art craft by those who have attended Hiratsuka’s sessions. Participants have a choice on what materials to use to express their feelings. Supplied

After, I went back to Vietnam for a project aimed at integrating my art therapy skills with a group women. I offered them a platform to express the pain they got from the abuses. I did not really know what to do after that project, but some expatriates came to me requesting for an art therapy session.

Good Times2: What makes transpersonal art therapy different from other types of art therapy?

Hiratsuka: I don’t know much about the other kinds of art therapy. What I do know is that art therapy was traditionally based more on psychoanalysis, you know, very Freudian. It was more of a system you draw rather than a doctor interpreting your illness. What I do is more holistic as it includes meditation movements of the body and things like that. The biggest difference is that art therapists empower the clients to figure out things for themselves. I would never look at someone’s work and say this means XYZ. Instead, I allow the client to explore what it means over time.

Good Times2: You’ve had art therapy sessions with different groups. Is there any difference on your way of facilitating art therapy and in these groups’ ways of doing art?

Hiratsuka: I have travelled around providing art therapy for different groups of people. But most of the time, I hold sessions for English-speaking women. I also have dealt with people expressing their trauma because I have a strong background in that. In my most recent group session in Cambodia, there were more male attendees compared to my art sessions in Vietnam. I have not really seen major cultural differences in the art therapy sessions. But when I was doing my practicum in Australia, I had the opportunity to work with a group of senior citizens. It was a unique session. The way I planned the activities was very different from what I do with the younger batches. I mean, some of them could not remember or lacked some motor skills so I really needed to have activities that suited them.

Art therapy could work in Asia because it helps destigmatise people who need help. Photo: Supplied

Good Times2: Are there certain traumas or disease that would benefit more from art therapy than traditional therapy?

Hiratsuka: I don’t think one mental illness is more curable than another through art therapy or traditional therapy. It’s more about the individual person. We found some people who have been going to talk therapies without results but when they switched to art therapy, they started to see fantastic changes. I think with healing, you find your own type of healing depending on who you are and what you’ve been through. When you know which type will help you more, go with that. For some people, art is an easier way to be understood and strengthen the healing process.

Good Times2: What materials do you use in your art therapy sessions?

Hiratsuka: I tend to get all the materials that suit the group and just put them there and let people choose what they want to use. Having said that, I do think people have a tendency to use the same things over and over again. I have also heard that some materials can be more of a triggering factor for some. For example, those who have experienced sexual abuse become more triggered when working with clay because it’s very touch-based. When I plan a session, I just try to think what activity I want to do and which materials are suitable for such activity.

Good Times2: How many people are there in one group session?

Hiratsuka: To keep the art therapy session as intimate as possible, I take seven people at max. These people spend about five week together in a session so they will have the chance to understand each other and build trust. I would like to think that when I run a session, it’s like addressing a bit of both individual and collective needs of the participants. Each session, I allow each person to stand up and share what they have drawn and what it means to them.

Good Times2: Would you like to work more closely with rural population in Cambodia in terms of providing art therapy?

Hiratsuka: That would be really great. But I worry about the language and communication barriers, which is why I work with people who can speak English on a high level. When I was in Vietnam, I was training my Vietnamese friend who was going to the United States to study art therapy so she can come back to Vietnam and provide therapy session in native Vietnamese. That would really be exciting because there’s not much any kind of therapy in Vietnam. I think art therapy would really work well all over Asia because there’s a bit of a stigma here that when somebody gets help from a doctor, others will think he’s ill. But when you join a group for an art therapy, no one will talk bad about you.

Good Times2: Is there anywhere else in Cambodia where art therapy is being offered?

Hiratsuka: Yes. I have heard that Daughters of Cambodia has Western volunteers who come and hold therapy sessions. I think it would really be great if art therapy was offered as a university degree so more people can get into it and hold group sessions.

Good Times2: Will you continue your art therapy sessions here in Cambodia?

Hiratsuka: I’ll be volunteering as an art therapist for the Daughters of Cambodia. I will also be doing an exhibition for them somewhere down the line. In the meantime, I will be doing a closed course (in English) for people who are in need of mental health support in Phnom Penh.

For more details about Hiratsuka Nika and her art therapy sessions, visit

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