September 29, 2016

Creating art with a purpose

On some days, all it took was a few clicks of a mouse to make Brandon Halley feel a little better.

Halley, who suffers from depression and anxiety, would show his photography to others to improve his mood. He described it as the only way he knew to positively de-stress. This is something Halley did for many months as a form of therapy.

A member of an online community called Broken Light Collective, Halley submitted his photography alongside his experiences dealing with mental illness with other members of the community. This was his first venture into art therapy.

“It’s interesting to see the responses to the work I submitted, and people say, ‘I know exactly how you’re feeling’, and tell me stories about it,” Halley said. “It makes me feel like I’m not the only person who is having these feelings.”

After participating in the online community for some time, Halley thought Webster  University might be a good venue to continue working with art therapy. He also wanted to give back to his community. During his summer break, Halley organized Self-Empowerment Through Art (SETA), a club to promote the discussion of mental illness and how art therapy can help those who suffer from it.

Halley was encouraged to start SETA by Erin Bullerdieck, the coordinator for the Transitions program on campus. Transitions is a program Halley participated in during his freshman year, that gives incoming students the opportunity to receive early academic counseling and guidance.

Photo by Lily Voss

Photo by Lily Voss

Bullerdieck knew Halley suffered from depression and was aware of his involvement in art therapy online, so she supported him as he created SETA. As a freelance graphic designer, Bullerdieck also had some experience with using art as a form of therapy. Halley asked Bullerdieck to be the advisor for the club because of this.

“No matter how you choose to express yourself creatively, this kind of thing makes a good outlet for support for students,” Bullerdieck said.

Halley said the group of people who expressed interest in SETA are both those who seek art therapy and artists who just want to help others out. Freshman Ethan Helkey is the vice president of SETA, and uses art therapy as a form of expression. Helkey worked with special education children using art therapy at his high school, which opened his eyes to how it could help him. He said a lot of the children didn’t have motor skills or couldn’t communicate properly, so creating art helped him communicate with the kids.

Helkey suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. He said having an art therapy club on campus would benefit him personally and would give him an opportunity to work toward his future goal of helping special education students. Helkey said he wants to be able to share his story with people who are coming from a similar place.

Lily Bennett, another member of SETA, got involved in the club after transferring to Webster from University of Missouri-Columbia (Mizzou). She said she had the idea to start an art therapy club, but never got the chance, so when she heard of Halley’s new club, she joined right away.

For Bennett, participating in art therapy was something that went along with trauma therapy she has done in the past. She said creating art on the side helped her deal with feelings brought up during her therapy sessions.

“So far, SETA feels like a really safe environment for people who join,” Bennett said. “I want people to know to not be intimidated, and even people who aren’t art majors can come in here and create and not be judged.”

Halley is working to get funding for SETA through Student Government Association, but plans to continue working on SETA whether or not he gets funding. Halley said he hopes his club will be able to work with other organizations on campus to contribute art to their events and host gallery events of its own. In addition, he said the most important goal for the club is to help uplift those with mental illness in whatever way it can.

“I mainly want to erase the stigma of mental illness being hard to talk about,” Halley said. “I want to talk about it openly and do something to help.”

For Halley, art therapy is in his future. He said he eventually hopes to create a professional organization much like he has created at Webster, but during the rest of his time here, he wants SETA to have the biggest positive effect possible.

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