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Dakar doctors draw on art therapy for psychiatric treatment

 INSP 11 June 2019

While art therapy is still a relatively new practice in Senegal, it is gaining recognition as a helpful form of complementary therapy, and now artwork made by patients at Dakar’s main psychiatric unit is to be displayed during one of Africa’s biggest art festivals, the Dak’Art Bienniale. (788 Words) - By Amanda Fortier

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INSP_Senegal art therapy

Art therapy is being used in conjunction with other treatments to help patients in the psychiatric wing at Dakar’s main hospital, Hôpital Principal de Dakar.  Photo: Amanda Fortier

Inside the psychiatric wing at Dakar's main hospital, Hôpital Principal de Dakar, Souleyman* stands tall above a blank canvas. Expressionless, he takes his brush, dips it into the blue paint and begins to swiftly sketch the outline of a military figure poised in combat, paying special attention to fill in the rifle, boots and helmet.

"I'm here because I've had to kill people in my job," he explains. "I've been suffering terrible nightmares."

Souleyman is a soldier who has been stationed in southern Senegal's conflict-ridden Casamance region for the last 19 years. Every few months he makes the 14-hour car journey up to Dakar's hospital to see a doctor and attend his art-therapy class.

"I need to do this," says Souleyman quietly. "It's one of the only ways I feel good. Here I don't need to think. I can relax and completely de-stress…"

Art therapy is still a relatively new practice in Senegal, and Hôpital Principal de Dakar remains one of few hospitals on the continent to have a dedicated art therapy program. It used alongside treatments for everything from chronic depression and autism to alcohol abuse and schizophrenia.

The art programme became a part of the hospital's work eight years ago, with the help of a local group known in the local Wolof language as "man is the helper of man" and Dr. Tabara Sylla, the hospital's chief psychiatrist.

"At first the project started as a way to keep patients busy in the afternoon, rather than have them sitting around smoking," admits Dr. Sylla from her office. She prefers not to attend the workshops herself, allowing the patients a neutral space to create without her presence.

"But I look through the patients' dossiers regularly, to gauge the workshops' progress, which can help during later personal interviews, particularly with those suffering from illnesses that inhibit verbal expression such as autism, or some forms of depression," she explains. "Looking at the patients' artwork shows how their emotions are evolving. And in interviews, the most important thing is to let them interpret their own images and tell me what they've drawn."

"The traditional techniques work, like art therapy, because they are emotive, pushing people to confront powerful feelings and to move beyond obstacles."

Traditionally, therapeutic release in Senegal - as in many other parts of Africa - involves ceremonial dances, chanting or other forms of physical expression.  Felicity Kodjo, a Togolese artist, is one of five leaders who run the tri-weekly art-therapy workshops at the hospital.  She believes there are important parallels between traditional forms of therapeutic expression and the art workshops.

"The many traditional types of so-called 'soft medicine' in Africa can help relieve mental distress," explains Kodjo. "In Senegal, this includes forms of hypnotism and ceremonial events, such as the ndeup (an animist ritual), that puts participants in a type of trance. The traditional techniques work, like art therapy, because they are emotive, pushing people to confront powerful feelings and to move beyond obstacles."

Art as a form of therapy is broadly viewed from two camps: on the one hand, the creative act itself is valued for helping bring about a type of mental comfort and solace. On the other hand, the interpretive elements visible within the patient's expressions - whether through the repetition of images, colors and actions - are considered insightful representations in their own right.

Kodjo explains her own views: "The difference between artistic art and art therapy is that, in art therapy, the patient works independently - he is not guided - and once he has made what he wants to do, because he is not obliged to anything, the interpretation comes through the constants that come back into through the work. A first drawing of a bird, for example, can be fairly banal.  But, if a patient continues to paint birds, then we can start asking key questions. This is especially useful with patients who do not speak, but only communicate through images."

Looking around the hospital art workshop at the patients of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities, it is clear that for some, these sessions are highly personal, creative exercises. And yet for others, it is a collective, social time where they come together simply to let go.

"The basis of all wellbeing is, first of all, to be heard," says Kodjo. "When someone is not doing well, the most important aspect is the human factor - to be heard and to feel a part of something. And art therapy is there to facilitate that relief in whatever way that needs to happen."

* Souleyman's real name has been changed to protect his identity.

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