In this Featured Member series, AATA celebrates the work of our members. During the coronavirus epidemic, we are inviting members to share their experiences about how their professional and personal lives have changed.

April 22, 2020 

What has changed (or remained the same) in your job/studies during the COVID-19 global crisis?

As artists and art therapists, I think part of who we naturally become is an advocate. Whether it’s defending the need for art or having to explain what art therapy is, advocacy seems to be part of the gig. Recently I’ve felt a drastic shift in the focus of this advocacy, now turning these efforts on the need to keep my clients safe. This has included actually speaking up against the use of typical art materials, which has been strangely disorienting to me and totally opposite of the norm.

In the practical sense, prior to stay-at-home orders, I was developing a new creative-based day program. My clients and I were getting into a good routine. Group and individual progress was incredible. The sudden halting of this program and not knowing when we can resume is a layered stress, as consistency and skill maintenance fade. I am unable to provide services through telehealth; I’ve been seeking feedback and guidance on how I can continue to provide care while still ensuring the safety of residents.

How are you juggling adjusted schedules and new work from home/living spaces?

I have been deemed essential personnel by my employer.  While I am thankful to be working, I have now shifted my focus on rebuilding a safe art therapy program to engage my clients while also protecting them. My personal schedule hasn’t changed much (besides missing crucial connections to my family, friends, and live music), but I find it harder to keep up with technology-based social needs now, maybe because my professional experience has been uniquely challenging. I’ve always been a private person, social media and otherwise, but this crisis has encouraged me to reach out to people in new ways for some much needed guidance.

In what ways have your clients been impacted by this crisis? Have you been able to continue care? How are you managing your own stress related to their experiences?

I work in a group home campus setting, and my clients have been quarantined to their homes for over a month, unable to see their loved ones. Their lives have drastically changed and they have varying levels of understanding why. Staff are required to wear PPE, including face masks. Besides attempting to limit contact and the use of art materials, I’ve found wearing a mask to be most disruptive to the therapeutic process. Many of my clients have various communication challenges and rely on facial expressions to understand cues. With most of my face being covered, nonverbal communication is nearly impossible. I’ve found myself increasing social distance and quickly removing my mask to reveal my smile, which can be so crucial to their understanding. Additionally, much of what I had encouraged in the past, such as peer interactions, sharing, and collaboration are now unsafe and I’ve had some difficulties in determining how to best serve my clients with these new parameters.

My stress related to their experiences has been heavy, as they have limited awareness regarding the need for social distancing, not touching your face, all the measures we know to keep ourselves safe. Because of this I’ve felt a stronger need to protect them from unnecessary harm and exposure.

How do you view your role as an art therapist during this crisis?

Because we’re in the middle of a community crisis, I feel right now I am being a witness to how their lives have completely changed and feeling their losses along with them. When we get through to the other side, I am hopeful that our joint experience can be a foundation for creating a necessary healing space.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the community during these uncertain times?

Please keep making and sharing art! The creative process naturally ebbs and flows, and stress and uncertainty are definitely impacting my process and engagement. I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to view others’ art, particularly art therapists’, as a way to keep me connected to my own creative spark– so thank you!

“What’s The Use?” by Shelli McCaffrey. Mixed media. 2018.

Artist Statement: I [unknowingly] started a series of similar imagery at the beginning of my art therapy graduate studies, with this painting being the final one. The series became a reflection of “blooming” + growth, with an emphasis on femininity and vulnerability.

Shelli McCaffrey, MS 

Shelli McCaffrey is an art therapist based in the greater Philadelphia area and a recent graduate of Holy Family University in Philadelphia with an MS in Counseling Psychology and an Art Therapy specialization. She has 13 years experience working with children and adults with Intellectual Disabilities and Autism, nine of which spent developing creative arts programs. She has focused on collaborative art making and has designed and facilitated the creation of multiple murals as a way to foster community among workplaces, including staff, residents, students, etc. Shelli has witnessed the power and necessity of the creative process for this population in multiple settings such as day programs, residential, and classroom settings. Recently (pre COVID-19), she has concentrated on the development of a creative-based alternative day program for residents with intellectual disabilities and various needs related to dementia, communication deficits, behavioral and medical needs, etc.