Introducing Dr Carla van Laar, Convenor, College of Creative and Experiential Therapies

It was her own experience of the healing offered by art therapy that led PACFA member Dr Carla van Laar into a career as an art therapist.

 In May 2022, Carla presented to the PACFA Council, proposing a new College of Creative and Experiential Therapies. The Council voted unanimously to approve the new College, which will be led by Carla as Convenor, with fellow art therapist Alisoun Neville as Deputy Convenor.

 In this PACFA member profile, Carla describes the breadth of her practice in Boon Wurrung Country (Inverloch, Victoria) and her successful advocacy in getting arts therapy recognised by the Victorian Government.

Can you share something of your own journey to becoming an art therapist?

 My beloved son Vaughn had a short life due to a rare neuro-degenerative condition and he passed over in 1997 at age 3 years and 9 months. During his beautiful life we discovered art therapy together at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. Creative arts therapy became an integral part of our family, adding quality and joy to Vaughn’s daily life, and helping us to bond and connect with each other.

 I had been working as a community artist for a decade by the time I decided to study for my Master of Creative Arts Therapy. Vaughn had passed the year before, and I was a heart broken bereaved young Mother (see my book Bereaved Mother’s Heart). Art Therapy became a way then for me to learn to live again, honouring my grief and the cycles of life and death, holding him in my heart as inspiration as I continued to care for my other baby son Henry, and eventually I was able to channel my intense love into my work in the community as a creative arts therapist.

 Can you describe your practice as an art therapist?

 After more than two decades as a practising creative arts therapist, I’m very fortunate to have worked in many different contexts with people of all ages and abilities, with people facing all sorts of complexities and challenges. I currently live and work in Boon Wurrung Country on the traditional lands of the Yallock Bulluk People, and I am slowly learning more and more about the artefacts and remains beneath our feet, the history and the caring culture of the Traditional Owners of this incredible place. For the past two years, I have worked together with Traditional Owners to plan and host the Creative Mental Health Forum, bringing creative and experiential therapists together here in coastal Inverloch for some professional development combined with self-care and time refilling our collective “well” (see the 12 minute documentary here).

 Inverloch Art Therapy is my practice here, and I work from an art studio at home, with an art-centred and studio-based approach. Lately, I have been working with children, young people and women affected by family violence, people with disabilities, and self-referring adults.

 Creative supervision is one of my passions, and I work with a lot of therapists, counsellors and support workers providing 1:1 Supervision as well as Supervision Studio, a small, group, creative and reflective approach to supervision. Working online means that people come together from all around Australia to connect with others who share similar values, and this work is very rewarding and nourishing.

 As part of your PhD, you created a full colour book of illustrated essays presenting your doctoral research into sharing women’s stories through art. Can you describe your research and what it brought to your practice as a therapist and artist?

 Well! I could write a thesis about this…. Just kidding… I’ll try to provide a brief answer…

 The idea that art and creative practice could be the topic of research, the method of researching, and the way of communicating the findings of research truly ignited my passions. In designing and undertaking my research, I really wanted to find out about how art ‘works’, and I wanted to centre art making practice as a form of knowledge production and communication. In the process of completing my Doctoral research, Seeing Her Stories, I learned that I wasn’t just creating the research, it was actually creating me. The research helped me to develop skills in patience and persistence, in looking at things that are complex and difficult to represent, to attune with deep listening through my senses, and it expanded my awareness about what arts therapy is and what it can be (see my Implications Chapter).

 My findings take readers on a journey of presence and embodiment, considering how contexts make a difference to our engagement with and through art, how change and continuity are part of life, how the arts deepen and strengthen relationships through connection and co-creation, and how sharing our stories through art is life enhancing in ways that have ripple effects out into the world.

 You and fellow art therapist PACFA member Alisoun Neville (as Deputy Convenor of C.CET) brought to PACFA a proposal for a College of Creative and Experiential Therapies, which was accepted by the PACFA Council in May 2022. What happens from here in the creation of the College?

 We are currently seeking nominations for the Leadership Group of the College of Creative and Experiential Therapies (C.CET), and welcome nominations from diverse practitioners who represent all the modalities represented in the new College. Our next jobs will be to create a detailed annual plan, organise creative and experiential therapies professional development events, promote the C.CET within our communities of practice, and get cracking with our advocacy work.

 Are there particular kinds of clients, or presenting issues, who/that particular benefit from an arts therapy – or ‘more than verbal’ approach?

 Creative and experiential therapists specialise in the use of ‘more than verbal’ approaches in therapy. We engage creative practices and experiential processes in our therapeutic work with people. These creative and experiential approaches can include the arts, such as visual, music, dance/movement, creative writing and drama, as well as play, embodied/somatic, nature-based and animal-assisted methods.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has confirmed the effectiveness of the arts and creative therapies for helping people experiencing mental illness at all stages of the life course (2019). An Australian review of the efficacy of the creative arts therapies (2013) supported the effectiveness of creative therapies for a wide range of conditions.

Because creative arts and experiential therapies are adaptable and flexible approaches, practitioners work responsively to meet the needs of people, groups and communities to make our work accessible and engaging. You will find creative and experiential therapists working with people in settings from pre-natal to palliative care and every life stage in between. People often turn to creative and experiential therapists when talking therapy isn’t working. In my experience, some examples include working with people who have been subjected to significant trauma, have complex and multiple needs, and/or have had negative experiences of seeking help in the mental health service system.

 You mentioned in your presentation to the PACFA Council that you and other art therapists have already successfully advocated for recognition by the Victorian Government. Would you like to share more about that?

 The ACTivate Arts Therapy campaign began in 2020 as a grass roots effort to have creative arts therapists recognised as mental health practitioners so that we could help fill the urgent gaps in Victoria’s mental health work force shortages – especially the National Mental Health Practitioner in Schools roles.

 In our petitioning to the Victorian Minister for Mental Health, meeting with our local Members of Parliament and senior public servants from the Department of Education, we quickly learned that the reforms we wanted would depend on the findings of the 2021 Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System. So, we wrote a submission to the commission and met with commissioners.

 In short, an enormous wave of support was generated for creative and experiential therapies, and the findings of the commission reported that creative and experiential therapists already form a significant part of Australia’s mental health and wellbeing workforce.

The commission recommended greater access to a broader range of creative and experiential therapies for people across the lifespan through the inclusion of creative and experiential therapists within multi-disciplinary teams and increased funding for access to these therapeutic supports. These changes are still underway, however the stage has been set for increased recognition and access. Importantly, the evidence that we gathered for arts therapy in schools has had a very real effect and the new Victorian Schools Mental Health Fund and Menu does now include art therapy as an option.

What we have learned is that we have a voice, we can advocate, and it works!