ImpactSummer/Fall 2018

The Art of Healing

Through UIndy’s art and music therapy programs

“With 43 million Americans experiencing mental illness, the need for art therapy is great and the applications are endless”

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

A pack of colored pencils, paper, clay. Tools like these are succeeding where others have failed to treat common mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.


Just ask Rachel Feldwisch, assistant professor and director of counseling programs in the College of Applied Behavioral Sciences. She also leads the new art therapy program at UIndy.

Feldwisch started her career at a modern-day orphanage for teens in Chicago, working with girls who had been involved with gangs or came from abusive homes. It was the first time she saw firsthand the amazing benefits of art therapy.

“A young woman whose mom had been addicted to cocaine was very guarded and had good reason to not trust adults,” Feldwisch remembers. “It took a month for her to speak a single word to me. Every session she would come in and stare at me. I would talk to her, but she wouldn’t answer.”

There are many non-verbal memories housed in the brain affected during a traumatic experience. According to Feldwisch, art therapists agree it is most effective to use a multi-modal approach: one that includes talking, along with making art that’s reflective of their traumatic experiences. Producing visual imagery allows people to re-process what has happened, look at the impact on their present life and evaluate how to move forward.

After a long month Feldwisch tried this approach and with time, art formed a bridge between therapist and patient.

“When she started making art, she was doing something therapeutic and then eventually she started talking about her art. The process of artmaking, the connection it formed and being able to speak about it were productive and helpful,” Feldwisch said.

The same concept applies whether you’re recovering from a traumatic event, having a serious case of the Mondays or somewhere in between. One in five–or about 43 million*–Americans experience a mental illness, and depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide; which is to say the need for art therapy is great and the applications are endless.

When Feldwisch moved to Indiana in 2003 to continue her career, there were seven registered art therapists in the state. Some were licensed as social workers, others were licensed as mental health counselors. They all had something important in common–they were engaged in treating the whole person.

During the last  15 years, resources have grown, but not as quickly as states like Illinois and New York where graduate programs in art therapy have existed for decades. In Indiana, art therapists are licensed as counselors at the state level in addition to being nationally registered as art therapists. Today, there are 68** credentialed art therapists in the state of Indiana. The University of Indianapolis and faculty like Feldwisch are working to grow those numbers.

UIndy offers an undergraduate program in pre-art therapy, which has been the most popular major in the Department of Art & Design for the last three years, and an art therapy concentration within the Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling program that launched in fall 2017. Both degrees teach students how creativity can be used to enhance physical, mental and emotional well-being for people of all ages and backgrounds.

“Being situated in the College of Applied Behavioral Sciences sets us apart because our students have the option of taking elective courses from other areas of psychology or from social work in addition to their required core content,” Feldwisch said. “We’re training students to identify both as art therapists
and counselors.”

New this year, the program hosts meetings for the Indiana Art Therapy Association, which are held in the UIndy Health Pavilion and are open to the public. Students are engaged in research and with the addition of two new faculty members in fall 2018, Feldwisch said, the faculty will be further supported in their own research agendas, which are much-needed in the field.

“I find it amazing to see how music can help people communicate.” 

Conor Furgason ’20 (music therapy)

Trauma, eating disorders and addictions are three main areas where art therapy practice and research are growing. Another area is related to technology. It creates stress for people, but we’re only starting to understand the full implications. The rise of technology–particularly among young populations–brings with it an even greater need for creative outlets. “Passively watching technology engages fewer parts of the brain compared to art and music, which engage unique neurological paths and relieve stress,” Feldwisch explained.

Music Therapy

Just as art can heal, music therapy offers an increasing number of opportunities to help patients achieve goals. The University’s new music therapy program, which allows qualified musicians to graduate with a bachelor of science in music therapy, provides students with hands-on opportunities to apply innovative techniques, grow their skill sets and connect with the community. Music therapists use techniques such as improvisation, performing and listening to achieve non-musical goals that include the patient’s physical, emotional, cognitive and social well-being. Music therapy students are paired with community partners as part of the program’s emphasis on practical experiences, including Accessibilities Inc. in Greenwood, Noble of Indiana, Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health and many others.

**Indiana Art Therapy Association, as of June 1, 2018

The Art and Science of Traumaratliff_lecture_40252s

Internationally-renowned art therapist Dr. Noah Hass-Cohen visited campus in the spring to speak at the 2018 Katherine Ratliff Symposium. From working in Israel to running a graduate program in California, her work primarily focuses on the understanding that traumatic injuries live within the body and the psyche.

To learn more about UIndy’s art therapy and music therapy programs, visit

What’s Up Next (From Rachel Feldwisch)

Our Mental Health Counseling: Art Therapy program will welcome their second cohort of graduate students in fall 2018. Among them are several talented graduates of UIndy’s pre-art therapy program. In addition, Michelle Itczak, a board certified art therapist, will join our faculty this August. Professor Itczak founded the art therapy program at Riley Hospital for Children and has over a decade of experience providing art therapy and counseling. We will collaborate to develop community partnerships that provide art therapy services to underserved populations in Indianapolis, in addition to existing partnerships at Laurelwood Community Center and Cancer Support Community of Central Indiana. We will also continue to host the Indiana Art Therapy Association meetings in the Health Pavilion. The first students will graduate with a concentration in art therapy from the Master’s in Mental Health Counseling program in 2019.

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