Mental Health: Fighting Loneliness and Stress through Art: Expressive Arts Program for Newcomer Women

By Mahtot Teka

Many newcomer women suffer from loneliness, isolation, and stress. To help them deal with these problems, Access Alliance Multicultural Health and Community Services offers a three-month “expressive art therapy” program.

All women are welcome, documented or not. The program is free and it doesn’t require any artistic ability or experience in therapy. T.T.C. tokens and childcare are available during the classes, which are held once a week.

For the last seven years, the program has been running at several Access Alliance locations, sometimes in collaboration with community agencies in different neighbourhoods.

A Visit to the Classroom

Lesley Swartz, the expressive art therapist who conducts the classes, is tall, slim, and has black, curly hair. There is a gentle aura about her. She speaks calmly and yet with an expressive face and a lot of hand movement. She began seven years ago as a student-intern, and is now a full instructor, as well as a mother – like most women in the program.

“Women have children, lots of responsibilities, not a lot of time for themselves, not a lot of time to have the opportunity to create anything for themselves.” Lesley says. She says that the expressive arts therapy program provides “a time and space to co-create with other people where they are not expected to do anything or judged for what they are doing. So in a way it is a relaxing time. It reduces stress, increases relaxation. It reduces isolation.”

The program, however, hasn’t always been for women only. When it began, men could take the classes, too. And they did. “We have found over time that women often use it in a certain way. They are also more accessible during the day because they are at home with their children. And often women are a little bit more isolated than men because they are perhaps not working outside of the house. They don’t have the same links to other people and networking.”

So what is expressive art therapy? How does it help the women?

Lesley explains, “It is a type of therapy that uses the imagination, uses creativity and accentuates the process [of art-making]. There is not really a prescribed way to have a session. It is catered to whoever is present, and what strikes at the moment in terms of impulse and spontaneity.”

Art therapy helps the participants by distracting them from the hassles of everyday life. The participants also challenge themselves to be like children by freely engaging with the art. They let themselves make art in order to enjoy the process of art-making, and not necessarily to make something. The kinds of art they do to this end include painting, drawing, collage, photography, fabric work, installation, mosaics, and glass painting.

The art-making is actually only a part of the program. A typical session at Access Alliance includes more than that. “People come in, and will drop off their kids. (There is a childcare room available.) There will be time to eat and to settle in, make sure kids are OK and people will sit around a table and talk. It will be quite casual. And there will a general check in, a kind of going around and seeing how people are doing. And then there is the art-making. Different things happen in different groups. And there is a closing. Closing can be something that you take maybe a word or a gesture that you may take from the process. And again people eat and talk and get their children ready and leave for the week.”

The participants come from different backgrounds and with different skills in English. I asked
Lesley how that affects their experience. “The first session there might be a couple of interpreters (the program provides interpretation service) but a lot of women will say
‘No, it is OK, I don't need one the next time.’ And in the first session there is a lot of information given, and objectives, and questions and answers, so it is useful. I think that, over time, the process of art making takes over. And there are a lot of ways to use our eyes and our senses and see what is happening and not necessarily need the words. There are not a lot of instructions. So that helps in a lot of ways. I would say that the nature of the group being an art group, it does help that challenge. Sometimes people request the interpreter to come up if they need to. But in general it hasn’t really been a limitation to people’s experience.”

And as she told me, the women’s experience has been positive according to the feedback they give. “A lot of them [say they] experience joy for the first time in a long time. They talk about just having time for themselves, feeling like a child, or doing things they have not done since they were children. People talk about laughing, talking with other women, and sharing with other women, and feeling not judged, feeling free to make mistakes.”

For more information call 416-699-7920 ext 420 or visit