Alternative therapies can enrich practice

painter in workshopA participant of a workshop for teen survivors of suicide paints during a session at Your Heart on Art in Nashville, Tenn (photo right).

Hearty laughter, colorful paints and a beloved country song all have something in common — they can be vital tools for social workers to enhance their practices.

Laughter may quite possibly be the best medicine, says NASW member Lisa Wessan, who adds that she appreciates the absurdity of life without falling victim to it.

“If the universe serves you lemons, make some lemonade,” she says.

NASW member Eileen Wallach says art is incredibly therapeutic for her, particularly when it comes to working with clay.

“It’s a very forgiving process — you can mush it up and start all over,” she says. “Even breaking a terra cotta pot is symbolic, because you can always pick up the pieces and begin again.”

IPods became a platform several years ago for NASW member Dan Cohen to bring music into a nursing home on Long Island, N.Y., so residents could listen to their favorite songs.

“The therapeutic outcomes are significantly different if someone listens to music they really love,” Cohen says. “These nursing home residents have had to leave behind their friends, houses and families. They shouldn’t have to leave behind music too.”

These three social workers found an alternative medium to enhance the way they help people, and using creative approaches like laughter, art and music can provide clinical practitioners with a unique way to reach out to clients.


Wessan says she doesn’t consider herself to be a goofy person. In fact, she’s a bit on the serious side. But she definitely has a sense of humor and knows how to spot the same quality in others.

She is a clinical social worker in Westford, Mass., and uses humor and laughter when working with her clients — whether one-on-one or in group workshops. This doesn’t necessarily mean people come into her office and immediately start to laugh, although she says sometimes this does happen.

Her approach is more about helping clients see the silver lining, and the potential humor, in their situations.

“There are two parts to the Chinese symbol for crisis: One part means danger and one means opportunity,” Wessan says. “Someone who comes to me in a crisis — whether they’re going through a divorce, their kids are getting bad grades, they can’t sleep, whatever — we try to find the blessing in the situation.”

For example, if someone comes to her in distress because they’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, Wessan says she will point out how the diagnosis can open up an opportunity to eat healthier and exercise.

“I start helping them see how being angry at their diagnosis is absurd,” Wessan says. “Learning how to accept the situation and then take action is far more productive.”

Wessan started to explore using laughter therapeutically right after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. At the time, she was in graduate school at Hunter College School of Social Work in New York.

She says 9/11 left her and everyone around her nervous, twitchy and worried.

“My usual ways of calming myself down weren’t working, and I started looking at what else I could do,” Wessan says. “Through online research, I found that a good stress buster is laughter. The more I read, the more intrigued I became. There is a real science to it.”

Laughter reduces cortisol, it’s soothing and stimulating, and it’s a social lubricant that can help you wiggle out of challenges, she says.

“When you’re stuck in traffic or having a bad day, you have the choice to get angry about it or laugh at the craziness,” Wessan says.

She points out that laughter is not to be evasive of the situation but to minimize the intensity and realize it will pass.

“Someone once said to remedy is not freedom from the storm but peace within the storm. We want laughter to help you find that peace,” Wessan says. “People in my workshops realize that this too shall pass.”

Although Wessan is a certified laugh therapist, she says certification is not required to use humor in a therapeutic way. But she recommends taking courses to learn how to apply laughter properly.

“I recommend to get started,” she says. “Tragedy plus time equals comedy. Why not learn how to laugh sooner about it?”


Wallach is not only a social worker and art enthusiast, but also a certified and professionally trained clown — a rather joyful occupation, she says. But it was an intense tragedy that led her to pursue using artistic methods to help clients.

Her husband had post-traumatic stress disorder, which Wallach says was the reason for his eventual suicide. Four months after this tragedy, Wallace started Your Heart on Art in Nashville, Tenn.

“My husband made everyone laugh, and he would say I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing now,” she says. “My heart is broken and it will always be broken, but it’s helping me to heal other people’s broken hearts.”

Your Heart on Art assists adults and children dealing with the emotional impact of various situations, Wallach says. Through individual workshops and community programs, people participate in expressing themselves through artistic endeavors, including painting, pottery, writing poetry and playing drums.

These activities can help participants release their emotions and gain clarity when simple words don’t always do, says Wallach.

“Some people want to say something and may not know how to say it, and everybody has emotions that may need to be expressed in different ways,” she says. “By painting, or beating on a drum, or shaping clay, it’s a way to release that.”

Wallach is not a licensed art therapist, but is a licensed social worker who has always found art to be therapeutic. She says Your Heart on Art does not offer “regular” art classes, but the classes they do offer are tailored to specific categories. For example, classes may be specific for survivors of suicide or those suffering from grief.

“That’s how we show people — through the value of art — about the healing process,” Wallach says. “We don’t teach any artistic techniques or critique anyone’s work, and clients don’t have to have any prior art experience. Rather, we offer a safe, nonthreatening environment for participants to acquire greater self-awareness and confidence, process feelings and emotions, and have the ability to articulate and share those feelings and emotions with others.”

The difference in being a degreed art therapist versus a social worker using art therapeutically is that social workers tend to look at the whole person — including the mind, body, soul and environment, Wallach says, and they use other forms of therapy in combination with art. For those interested in exploring art therapy specifically, she recommends doing research, as there are many programs that offer courses.

“I myself am an outside-of-the-box social worker. I have a purple streak in my hair and I’ve been practicing art since the 1980s,” she says. “I feel social workers can use all kinds of modalities, like art. And I love what I do.”


Music has been used for centuries to alleviate emotional distress, says NASW member Dan Cohen.

“It can help with anxiety, battling loneliness and depression, especially in people with Alzheimer’s and/or dementia,” he says.

Cohen is the founding executive director of Music and Memory, a nonprofit in Mineola, N.Y., that works to bring music into the lives of older adults and people with disabilities through digital means, like iPods.

Cohen says he was working in technology about eight years ago when he heard a journalist on a radio program talking about iPods being ubiquitous.

“But from my experience at the time, iPods weren’t really in nursing homes,” he says.

Cohen then took his laptop and some iPods to the A. Holly Patterson Extended Care Facility on Long Island so residents could listen to music. He says it was a hit, so much so that he went back frequently, each time with a bigger playlist of songs.

Nursing home residents are often administered antipsychotic medications to subdue them in times of distress and make them easier for staff to handle, Cohen says. But he points out that music can provide calming effects just as well as medication can.

“Anxiety, loneliness and isolation (are) rampant in nursing homes,” Cohen says. “It’s a recipe for decline, even if someone checks in in fairly good physical condition. When they are able to listen to their favorite music for maybe an hour or so a day, they have reduced agitation, which in turn makes things easier for staff. Morale overall improves for staff and residents, and people are in a better mood. And the need for medication is reduced.”

He says there is no shortage of psychiatrists and Alzheimer’s disease experts who are 100 percent behind the positive effects of music.

“If someone were to invent a pill to generate the outcomes we’re having with the music, every family and pharmaceutical company would want it,” he says.

There are certified music therapists who are highly trained and have vast knowledge to go deeper than he does, Cohen says. Even though he is not a music therapist, he says he tries to give back to people a little piece of the life they once knew.

“When you get old and go into any kind of institution, you lose relationships,” Cohen says. “When people have music, it’s a way for them to be more social, to reminisce with others, and have a better time.”


Health care center, art organization partner for project

NASW member Ann Fisher Raney is CEO of the Turning Point Behavioral Health Care Center in Skokie, Ill.

Turning Point recently partnered with Erasing the Distance, a nonprofit arts organization based in Chicago that uses the power of performance to disarm stigma, spark dialogue, educate and promote healing surrounding issues of mental health.

Raney says ETD takes real stories from people who live with mental health issues, and professional performers bring the true, unedited stories to the stage.

Turning Point was the clinical partner for an ETD production in May called “Tell me What You Remember,” a play about five family members coping with depression.

“Turning Point was invited to be the mental health partners for this project, and the partnership began even as the script was being developed,” Raney says. “We had about 20 clinicians involved in the project, and we provided script help and centering practices to the actors to keep them mindful if anything were to trigger them as they acted out the stories.”

Raney says Turning Point also prepared a tool kit about depression to distribute at the performance, and clinicians were available in the audience to talk to people afterward, answer questions and start an open dialogue for those who wanted to share their own struggles with depression.

“I think there’s such a need to find ways to talk about mental illness, mental health, intergenerational issues and what patterns may come up in a family,” she says. “This is a really unique way to get the word out and for us to provide clinical and technical support for this kind of performance.”

Dan Cohen, executive director of Music and Memory, in Mineola, N.Y., talks more about the healing effects of music in this audio clip.