Could You Pass the Royal Blue?

The new art therapy program at SUNY Plattsburgh’s Traumatic Brain Injury Center is proving to be a successful outlet for self-exploration and self-expression for participants, above just being plain old fun.

TBI Center window
A decorated window in the Traumatic Brain Injury Center, courtesy of the participants.

Imagine riding in the van with your family one day and all of a sudden you get broadsided by another vehicle, like Tim Rabideau. Or you’re 2 years old, as curious as ever, and you wander off for a moment, only to get run over by a semi-truck a few seconds later, like Renee Giddings. For months your family is on edge as you lie motionless in a deep coma. When you finally wake up, you have lost so much of yourself, like the ability to control emotions, self-awareness, and an adequate attention span, that you seem to be almost a completely different person. Your brain has been damaged and the option left to you is to just cope with it.

Rabideau is a 28-year-old traumatic brain injury, or TBI, sufferer who has come a long way since his traffic accident which happened at the age of 11. Although he lost two sisters that day and is now fighting nonstop just to complete the simplest tasks, Rabideau is constantly progressing in his redevelopment. For Rabideau, coming to the TBI Center every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday is a special time where he gets to be with friends, shoot pool, and just hang out. “I love it here,” he says. Giddings has the exact same sentiments. Since she was only two when her accident happened, she does not have as hard of a time talking about it as Rabideau does. She understands what happened to her and what she must work on, with the help of the TBI Center, to be able to function in the outside world.

“I love it here.”

TBI Center Participants
Participant Tim Rabideau, social work intern Danielle Fee, art therapy intern Kylie Parker, and participant Andrew Lemieux

The Traumatic Brain Injury Center (TBI Center), which is located in Beaumont Hall on the SUNY Plattsburgh campus, occupies a very small and secluded portion of the building on the top floor. Although it is still such a relatively organization, it is steadily growing and is a very valuable part of the week for those who come in regularly. There are many people who have similar stories to Rabideau and Giddings’s who utilize the TBI Center on a daily basis and take part in their varied programs which are designed to aid them in coping with their disability. Some of the traits of a traumatic brain injury which are apparent in the participants of the center’s programs are short attention spans, memory issues, organizational issues, and many others which range from mild to severe.

After opening its doors in 1994 with a large grant, the TBI Center has since run out the initial 5-year contract but is still going strong. The Center has become very valuable to the community, surrounding school districts, and SUNY Plattsburgh students as well. The psychology, art, and social work major and minor students on campus find it especially helpful as they have the opportunity to intern at the TBI center. One of the interns during the Spring 2009 semester is Kylie Parker, a senior in the art major and art therapy minor programs.

At the age of 11, Kylie finally became aware that for years, her outlet for expressing herself had actually been creating art. “Whenever I would get stressed out or frustrated, I would immediately go do an art project, whether it was messing around with sand, drawing with crayons, or painting; I would just make something up,” she says. “My interest in self-exploration, self-expression, and the actual art process is why I’m doing this now, because it helped me therapeutically.”

“My interest in self-exploration, self-expression, and the actual art process is why I’m doing this now, because it helped me therapeutically.”

Kylie Parker
Art therapy intern, Kylie Parker, enjoying work at the TBI Center.

Thanks to the three founders of the art therapy minor, Rick Mikkelson of the Art Department, Dr. Jeanne Ryan of the Psychology Department, and Adjunct Lecturer BrittMcDowell, students like Kylie have a way of expressing themselves and helping others do the same. This minor is only about 5 years old and was actually a collaborative effort by these three professors. The art therapy minor is very special because of its combination of both art and psychology, requiring a mix of both classes.

Kylie and the other two students completing their practicum this semester, Rob Hoffman and Katie Fisher, work directly with Britt McDowell every Tuesday to discuss their internships and help each other through them. They meet to discuss what went on at each of their sites that week and propose new projects for the groups to try. “We work on what they are doing and how they can shape it to go from being more than just an art activity to being able to address the needs of an individual,” says McDowell.

Two of the most important aspects of the meetings are the hands-on practice the interns get by trying out each project themselves before introducing it to the participants at their site, and also conducting and discussing research. For example, if one of them was working with a Down syndrome person, they would be doing research outside of their site work specifically on Down syndrome so they can better understand the person, how they work, what they are capable of, so they are better able to structure activities around their special needs and abilities.

“We work on what [the interns] are doing and how they can shape it to go from being more than just an art activity to being able to address the needs of an individual.”

TBI Center Participants
Socialwork volunteer Holly Messer Smith, participant Lisa Delcore, participant Renee Giddings, social work intern Fran Atkinson, and TBI Center Day Programs Coordinator Melissa Mose.

To begin the hands-on internship, students must first choose from a variety of different locations around the area in which to conduct their studies. The choices range from early childhood daycares, adult care and nursing homes, and specialized centers such as the TBI Center. “We make a match based on interest, proximity, and availability of site-based supervisors,” says McDowell. For Kylie, the TBI Center was a good match personally because she had worked with small children babysitting before, she had worked with people living with autism before, but “I’ve never known anyone with a TBI and it interested me,” she says.

Since working with art therapy at the TBI Center, Kylie has noticed a very positive response with her regular group. The biggest change, she says, has been the attention that the participants are giving to the projects. “When I first got there, their attention span was anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes. Art helps them concentrate on one activity; they start with a directive, develop a process, and turn it into a tangible object that, at the end of the day, they can look at and keep.”

At first, even though some of the participants insisted that they couldn’t do the assignments because they couldn’t draw well, Kylie insisted that they could. One of the projects involved a series of squares in which a different word was placed such as ‘angry’, ‘sad’, or ‘happy’ and the participants were told to look at the word a pick a color which they associated with it. When some refused, she would help them along by saying “If you’re mad, just draw something in red.” They eventually caught on and now there is no skepticism from them on their own artistic abilities. Instead, they “swarm” around her every time to comes in, as she says, asking about the activity for that day, the next day, or even a week from then.

Pariticipant Renee Giddings
Participant Renee Giddings shows off her portion of the TBI Center's Spring collage.

"Art helps [the participants] concentrate on one activity; they start with a directive, develop a process, and turn it into a tangible object that, at the end of the day, they can look at and keep.”

Since the minor requires a presentation at the end about her work with one specific participant, Kylie has chosen Renee to work more closely with throughout her internship. One of the things the two are working on together is Renee’s perception of herself. “For her, it’s all about self-awareness. It’s a progress within art therapy to help her to be more self-aware of who she is and that she does have fingers, eyebrows, etcetera.” Some may find this to be obscure, but for someone with a TBI, it may be something as simple as drawing a full self-portrait, like Renee, instead of just a trunk with a head, or a full body with no face, that helps her achieve her individual goal of self-awareness.

“Some of [the participants at the center] are at a point in their lives where they want to be independent, responsible, get out of the home, but they don’t have the skills or capabilities needed,” says Kylie. "Although art doesn’t help them with everything they’d like to accomplish in their lives, it helps them to sit down, organize, and plan, which is a skill needed to eventually become independent.”

How has art personally helped you?