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Experiential therapies provide new options to substance use treatment programs

Experiential therapies in art, music, fitness, and other areas assist people in treatment.

When a substance user seeks help, it’s likely that he or she will fully expect to be part of one-on-one talks, group discussions and other routes of traditional treatment. But tending to the growth of a plant or creating a painting? Probably not.

And yet participation in horticulture, art, music, fitness and other areas of interest have become an integral part of several treatment programs across the country, including Rosecrance Health Network.

It’s all part of recognizing the success of experiential therapies in art, music, fitness and other areas in assisting people in treatment, according to Christine Nicholson, experiential therapies supervisor at the Rosecrance adolescent campus in Rockford. “Teen patients use life experiences to help them understand abstract recovery concepts, which in turn, help tell the client’s story,” says Nicholson.

And understanding those abstract recovery concepts can come in a painting, a song, a period of meditation or another form personal expression.

“Our clients thrive in experiential opportunities and comment that they were finally able to step outside of their comfort zones and feel comfortable being who they are. They talk often about how they are learning to love life again by being exposed to healthy play and leisure and feel better physically, mentally and spiritually,” says Keri Fager, experiential therapies supervisor at the Rosecrance adult campus. “They share that they are better able to be present in the moment, feel more centered and are able to unload their concerns and worries and practice mindfulness. They comment about the safety of being able to finally express themselves through art, music or other creative expression, and learn to regulate and manage their emotions that they had suppressed through their addiction.”

Each experiential therapy differs, but as a starting point, an art therapy program might look something like this:

  • Patients might be asked to draw their addiction, illustrating what would it look like.
  • Patients might be asked draw a picture of an incident that occurred when they were using drugs.
  • Patients might be asked to draw where they are on their path to recovery.

Working together

For experiential therapy to be successful, it has to be one component of a comprehensive treatment plan. “Experiential therapies staff are fully integrated into the interdisciplinary treatment team,” says Nicholson. “Everyone works together to meet the client’s goals in the individual treatment plan. The clinical team looks closely at how well clients demonstrate such recovery values as honesty, teamwork and acceptance in their experiential therapies activities as part of the bigger picture when they evaluate the client’s progress toward their individual treatment goals.”

Fager says experiential therapies can help patients with their long-term success. “We work with clients while in treatment to learn, explore and practice new life skills through their own strengths and interests so that they can be prepared for real-life situations,” says Fager. “Research shows that participation in experiential therapies increases self-esteem and improves motivation, follow-through with goals, leisure skills, social skills and health in general.”

Eye toward the future

At the treatment center in Rockford, the experiential therapies program now includes the use of the new 750-square foot Ipsen Conservatory, a glass-and-steel classroom for the horticultural program. The conservatory, which was built on a rooftop of the 78-bed treatment center, is used as a classroom for teens in treatment. As with the goals for Rosecrance’s other experiential programs, counselors and administrators hope that patients will cultivate and continue the horticulture skills they learned in the conservatory after they complete the recovery program, just as many patients continue pursuing the arts, meditation strategies or fitness plans they learned at Rosecrance as part of their lives outside the facility.

“Research shows that participation in experiential therapies increases self-esteem and improves motivation, follow-through with goals, leisure skills, social skills and health in general,” says Fager.

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