Healing collective trauma through the arts

edited.JessicaAsch_RebeccaKanaskie2By Lori Wysong

News Editor

When Associate Professor and Chair of Sociology Erin Anderson heard an NPR report about an art therapy program for the victims of the Parkland, Fla. school shooting, she stayed in her parked car to listen to the entire story.

“The sociologist in me kept going back and thinking this over,” she said. 

In September, Anderson reached out to the developer of this program, Drama Therapist Jessica Asch, who recently visited Washington College with an art therapy workshop and talk entitled “Healing Collective Trauma Through Creative Arts Therapy.”

Sophomore Sarah Bowden attended the talk and said, “It was cool to learn about a new method of therapy.  As an artist, it resonated with me.”

After being diagnosed with learning disabilities as a child, Asch found a means of self-expression through the performing arts and was excited to tell her acting teacher how therapeutic it felt for her. 

Asch remembered being told that “Acting is not therapy that this is not therapeutic and if I was interested in seeing a therapist, I should tell my mom or my dad and they could get me a ‘talk therapist.’”

“I remember at 12 thinking to myself, ‘You’re wrong,’” Asch said.

Today, Asch works specifically in collective trauma therapy, with groups of people who experienced the same traumatic event.  She specifically discussed her work with adolescents in juvenile detention centers, Holocaust survivors, and students in Parkland, Florida. 

“Because trauma disconnects people emotionally, mentally, physically, socially, and politically, one of the keys to combat this is to bring people back together so that they can be seen, they can be heard, they can be acknowledged and witnessed,” Asch said. 

According to Asch, one of the best ways to connect people is through the arts. While Asch specializes in Drama therapy, other forms of art therapy incorporate dance, music, or visual arts. 

“The Animation Project,” the first program she discussed, brings in professional animators to work with incarcerated youths. After learning animation skills and formulating a script, the participants create their own short video. 

“We use animation to help them tell their story,” Asch said. 

She told the story of one participant who went on to study animation after his release and came back to the program as a professional animator. 

“Witness Theatre,” another program for Holocaust survivors, partners the survivors with members of the younger generation.  After months of preparation, Asch writes a script about their lives and produces a play. 

“The adolescents play the young version of the survivors, and the survivors are onstage narrating their story,” Asch said. 

According to Asch, sharing the stories and participating in the theatre program with younger people occasionally brings out strong emotions for the survivors, but the group is ultimately stronger for sharing these experiences. 

“This is what happens in drama therapy. One moment you’re rehearsing, one moment you’re processing,” she said. 

When Asch was asked to develop a program for the students in Parkland, she had  already seen the extensive media coverage of the school shooting and protests surrounding it. 

“Everybody was saying to these kids, ‘Oh, you’re so strong,’” she said, “And they didn’t feel strong.” 

“They wanted to be messy and no one was giving them the opportunity to do that,” Asch said.

Asch hired several local art therapists to provide for the different needs of the students and would not allow a documentary to be made of the program because of her desire for the students to heal. 

“When it was finished, we had multiple victims’ families come and say to us that out of any mental health program offered, that this program was the most impactful and the most effective,” she said. 

Because the program received such positive feedback, Asch said she would go back to Parkland if asked.

Commenting on the positive influence art therapy can have even on those who experience the most horrific collective trauma, Anderson said, “Communities have been targeted. Communities can experience loss. Communities can benefit from working through this together.”

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