In this Featured Member series, AATA celebrates the work of our members. During the coronavirus pandemic, we are inviting members to share their experiences about how their professional and personal lives have changed.
April 8, 2021
What has changed in your work during the COVID-19 global crisis? In what ways have your clients been impacted by COVID-19?
My work as an art therapist actually changed significantly several months before the arrival of COVID-19. In October of 2019, I was laid off from my position with Centennial Medical Center after 8 years due to budget cuts. This was such a sudden and incredible loss for me, as I not only loved the work I was doing but felt the art therapy programs I created were finally receiving attention and recognition for the benefits they were bringing to patients. In March of 2020, I was feeling ready to reenter the workforce and had just talked to a therapist friend about renting office space and opening a private practice when COVID hit. Of course, all plans and preparations stopped and any hopes and aspirations I had related to my career were put on hold.
Reflecting on what was lost for me in both the pandemic and the months leading up to it, I’ve come to see that what I gained was time. Time to pause. Time to grieve. Time to sit with the trauma of everything that was happening both personally and globally. Time to care for myself and my family. And ultimately time to reflect on what I needed to be able to live and work in more sustainable ways. Within this gift of time, I began to think about a different way of doing things. I knew I did not want to fall back into the style of work I was familiar with (which could have been easy to do), the style of working for a large corporate organization where days and schedules are driven by outcomes, numbers, and productivity along with the mentality of “what more can you do?” without ever recognizing what’s already been done. As a result, when I finally did open a private practice last fall, my plans and preparations were drastically different than when I first started in March. I was able to develop a schedule and approach to work that benefits both my own health and wellbeing as well as that of my clients.
In this transition, it’s been interesting to see how my work as an art therapist has evolved in direct response to this experience. I currently provide individual sessions as well as classes and workshops, all of which utilize practices in mindfulness, self-compassion, and yoga. In the freedom of running my own practice, I feel I can facilitate sessions that are more authentic and more in line with what I have found to be helpful ways of living and being in this world. These sessions are all facilitated virtually too, which is something I never imagined myself doing.
In addition, another interesting development born out of this time is a specific client population that has seemingly found me and my practice instead of the other way around. Many of the individuals that have approached me are working in healthcare in either medical or mental health services. As you can imagine, this past year has been hard for us all but has taken an especially profound toll on frontline workers. They’ve carried so much on their shoulders in the collective care for our society and, in doing so, have sacrificed much of their own needs and care in the process.
As we begin to move out of survival mode and cautiously into more optimistic and hopeful territory with the distribution of vaccines, I’ve actually noticed an increase in the reported anxiety, depression, and grief among individuals. I think people are finally feeling a sense of safety and room to breathe and are thus finally reckoning with the emotional fallout of this past year. It gives me hope though that so many people are seeking help and support and that the stigma of taking care of our mental health seems to be dropping further and further away as a result.
How are you managing your own stress during this time?
I’ve long turned to mindfulness, yoga, and art making for my own routines of self-care and as a means for processing the emotional experiences that arise from this field of work and just from life in general. I believe in the healing power of these tools and weave them into my interactions with clients, because I have benefited so much from them myself. These are the things that have held me through the unexpected death of a parent, chronic pain from multiple surgeries, and the joyful but anxiety ridden transition of becoming a parent myself. These are the things that have shown me how to sit with others through their own moments of suffering without being overwhelmed and thus allowed me to continue this work without becoming burned out.
When the pandemic arrived, bringing with it unparalleled fear, trauma, grief, and loss, I turned to what I knew. I turned to the practices that had helped me so much before. With each day as uncertain as the next, I gave myself only one item on my daily to do list — do what you need to do to take care of yourself, whatever that looks like. Some days, this looked like meditating and doing yoga while my toddler napped. Some days, this looked like setting up the space and supplies to create art, knowing I wouldn’t be able to actually paint until a later date. Some days this looked like simply lying on the floor and breathing.
Throughout it all, one thing that was profoundly helpful was deepening my study in mindful self-compassion (MSC) through a virtual workshop with Dr. Kristin Neff and later a 10 week online course in MSC with the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion. There are too many insights from these programs to name here, but one of the most important that stood out to me is the intention of why we practice meditation, the idea that we come to these practices not so much to feel better, but to care for ourselves when we feel bad.
How have race related issues, social justice, and racism informed or impacted your work as an art therapist?
Doing advocacy work for our profession at the state level the past six years has brought issues of race and social justice to the forefront of my attention, from the lack of representation in our legislative bodies to the repeated filing and passage of bills written with the sole intent to restrict voter access and deny basic rights to traditionally marginalized and oppressed peoples. I’ve long known these inequities existed, but as someone who is privileged in many ways, I was not aware of just how deeply embedded they are in our society.
Coming face to face with the large systems that perpetuate racism and inequity has led me to recognize the necessity of taking a more personal look at how I may have unknowingly contributed to these systems in the past through lack of awareness and resulting silence and inaction. I have a strong desire to not only “do no harm” in my work and my profession but to be an effective agent for change in my community. Yet, to keep this commitment and truly honor it has required doing the work of self-inquiry and self-education to ensure that I can respond more skillfully and effectively as an ally and an advocate.
As they have in so many other areas of my life, the qualities of mindfulness and self-compassion have guided me through this process. Their intentions of willingness, openness, and radical acceptance have taught me how to sit with the often uncomfortable and sometimes overwhelming feelings of anger, grief, helplessness, and guilt that arise as well as how to transform these feelings into motivators for change and renewed energy for continuing the work that needs to be done, personally, professionally, and globally.
How do you view your role as an art therapist during COVID-19?
As art therapists, we have such a unique foundation of knowledge both in mental health and the benefits of creativity and expression. And we’re in such an important position to be able to share with others these creative practices that lead to more sustainable ways of living and being in this world. I think (and I hope) that one of effects of this time in COVID-19 will be that people are now more likely to listen to the many voices of our amazing art therapy community as well as to their own inner voices and guiding intuitions.
One art therapy directive I’ve found to be particularly impactful these past few months centers around this idea of simply listening. We begin with a meditation to ground attention in the body and breath and then ask the questions: What is it like in the mind? What is it like in the heart? What is it like in the body? We then use art making to reflect on what arises from these questions and finally close with the journal prompt: What does your artwork have to tell you? Through the process of this awareness and reflection, the intention is not to change or alter anything about one’s experience but to simply listen to it, to hold it, and ask: What does it need? Along with: What do you need while sitting in this experience?
Catherine Harris, ATR-BC, RYT 200
Catherine graduated from The George Washington University with a master’s degree in art therapy in 2007. Since then, Catherine has worked in a variety of settings as a board certified art therapist but always with the same intention to help clients engage in their own art-making, creativity, and discussion to help find ease among life’s many challenges. Early in her career, Catherine developed a private practice in art therapy by contracting with over twenty organizations in west and middle Tennessee, including the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, the Memphis Brooks Museum, and the Ronald McDonald House of Memphis.
In 2011, Catherine moved to Nashville, where she began working as a full-time art therapist for TriStar Centennial Medical Center. While she started in the hospital’s inpatient and intensive outpatient behavioral health programs, she later took on a new role created to expand expressive therapy services to the medical hospitals of Centennial’s campus. For the six years she worked in this position, Catherine both created art therapy programs for the individuals admitted to Centennial’s services in oncology, pediatrics, bariatric and orthopedic surgery and managed the music therapy and recreation therapy programs for these same areas. As a part of this work, Catherine led a project in partnership with the hospital’s Opioid Stewardship Committee and the app Headspace to bring mindfulness courses to patients pre- and post-surgery to help manage stress, anxiety, and pain.
Catherine recently returned to the world of private practice when she opened HeartSpace Wellness Studio last fall. Through her practice, Catherine provides virtual art therapy sessions for individuals, classes and workshops for organizations, and clinical supervision for recent art therapy graduates. Her individual sessions focus primarily on adults facing distress from medical diagnoses and the healthcare workers and loved ones caring for them facing burnout and compassion fatigue. Throughout all of her work, Catherine utilizes practices in mindfulness and yoga and the philosophies of Mindful Self-Compassion, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Catherine understands and carries a passion for the healing powers of creativity, mindfulness, and yoga not only from her professional work as an art therapist but because she has experienced the profound benefits personally when facing chronic pain, difficult life transitions, and compassion fatigue herself. Because of this experience, Catherine is committed to both sharing these practices with others as well as her own continued path of learning and self-inquiry.
While Catherine has presented several times at the AATA annual conference and currently serves on the Conference Proposal Review Committee, most of her work and connection with AATA has been through her local chapter, the Tennessee Art Therapy Association (TATA). Catherine took on the role of Chapter President in the 2015 – 2016 term and, since then, has served as TATA’s Governmental Affairs Co-Chair. Along with her fellow Co-Chair Paige Scheinberg, Catherine has led the chapter’s advocacy efforts to increase affordable and quality mental health services in Tennessee. This work includes meeting with state legislators, collaborating with local and state mental health organizations, organizing the first ever Art Therapy Day on the Hill, and creating an email campaign called Empower TN to educate the public on the benefits of art therapy for different populations. Throughout it all, Catherine and Paige worked closely with AATA public policy advisors Dean Sagar and Clara Keane on drafting a bill for art therapy licensure, which was filed in four consecutive state legislative sessions and passed by both the TN Senate and TN House in the current 2021 session.