By Matt Serlin, family counsellor at The Centre for Addiction Treatment Studies, Action on Addiction


It can be considered that to draw is a natural instinct for human beings (Dutton 2009). As we get older the activity of creating a piece of artwork evolves from erratic scrawling to illustrations that can make sense of our experiences (Case & Dalley 1999). In turn this enables us to communicate and express ourselves.


For some, engaging in the process of forming a piece of artwork can be a way to alleviate anxiety and stress (McNiff 2004). If someone is feeling overwhelmed and lost for words it can be cathartic to simply ‘get it all out’ on a sheet of paper. From a neuroscience perspective the act of creating artwork fires up brain activity which ultimately can help you gain new insights that potentially bring the unconscious into the conscious (Herrmann 1989).


To express yourself through artwork you do not need to have an artistic flare or talent. The important thing to remember is that it is about making the process work for you. That is to say, if drawing is really not your thing then try collage and working in the metaphor? If painting fills you with fear, then what about photography or sculpting with papier-mâché?


Art that is used to express emotions that cannot be articulated with words alone has been used as part of therapeutic interventions for many years. One reason for this is that focusing on artistic expression allows difficult and traumatic experiences to be communicated in a healthier way and as a consequence any further issues that arise can be processed and worked with (Eastman et al 2012).


On M-PACT; a programme that was specifically designed by Action on Addiction to meet the multiple and complex needs of children who have been affected by a parent’s drug or alcohol misuse, we adopt a combination of family and child focused approaches to achieve positive outcomes.


One of the aims of this intervention is to promote the integration of thoughts, beliefs and feelings with the exploration of the resulting behaviour. Some of the ways this is achieved is through the use of drama and art. Families are encouraged to use creative forms of expression for difficult feelings that may be too overwhelming to articulate.


For example in the early stages of the programme children are invited to make their own pictures of how addiction has affected them using a whole range of art materials. After completion the artwork is explored, focusing on what their illustrations mean to them. As feelings and thoughts are expressed, key words that are used to describe representations are noted. Often these children have been isolated, stigmatised, confused, neglected and are at risk of serious harm (Forrester 2013).


The following are several children’s pictorial representations of what addiction looked/felt like to them with the accompanying descriptive words used:



As a therapist the use of art in this context is a great way of exploring and understanding a child’s world. Artwork created in this way can translate into great detail and insight. It goes beyond verbalisation and encourages safe expression of experience and feelings (Rubin 2011).


It gives the child a voice which they may have lost due to fear or inability to verbalise. They may also feel that by directly talking about the issue of parental addiction they are in some way betraying their parent (Kroll & Taylor 2003). Consequently art is a safe way for a child to tell their story and be heard, and we know a child feels cared for when they have been listened to (Riddall-Leech 2003).


Some years ago I was working with a child who had experienced trauma and loss. In the sessions she liked to tell her story using the art materials that I had provided. On one occasion I asked her why she liked to use drawing in this way. Her reply came back quickly and was short without hesitation - ‘It makes the unhappiness go away’. This for me succinctly sums up the power of using artwork to express oneself.


From an emotional and psychological health perspective, it really is essential that people are given the opportunity to express themselves (Cromby et al 2013). It is clear that one way this can be encouraged and achieved is through the medium of art.


If you want to try and express yourself through art, then don’t think about it too much…just go for it, making sure you have good support networks in place or an informed professional to guide you through the process if needed.