How this graduate is transforming the mental health of her community


Rhonda is creating a colorful splash in her community by introducing an art therapy program for those who suffer mental health issues. Learn how she did it.

Rhonda Dee is a professional visual artist and a graduate of the Graduate Certificate of Counselling at Jansen Newman Institute.

She is now making a colourful impact in the Sydney community by fusing the worlds of art, connection and creativity.

“My study at Jansen Newman Institute has allowed me to link my ideas and creative strengths in art through the fields of psychotherapy and counselling. I now incorporate aspects of counselling, neuroscience and mindfulness into my practice and communication with others to generate greater connection across communities.”

The Art for Wellness Program in Bankstown is a community program geared for participants who suffer mental health issues and would like to explore meaning and creative potential through art. The group will be showcasing their paintings, ceramic sculptures, and collages in an exhibition at Bankstown Art Centre throughout this month for Mental Health month. The majority of students have had little to no previous experience with creating visual art.

As a practicing professional artist, creativity specialist and program facilitator for over 20 years, Rhonda relished in exploring core drives within human transformation, identity and creativity. Rhonda believes it is within the flux of finding and losing ourselves that real freedom is made possible, and she has dedicated her life to just that.

In April this year, Rhonda was approached by Bankstown Art Centre and Southwestern Sydney Health District to create a program that integrates visual arts with mental health

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This strategy was called “5 Ways to Wellbeing” – aimed at promoting mental health through feeling good and functioning well. She immediately embraced the opportunity to work in the combined areas of mental health and art and created The Art for Wellness Program. The process of meeting on a regular basis in the studio at Bankstown has helped participants in the community and reduce isolation and stigma associated with mental health.

The course has been a huge success and has resulted in measurable increases in well-being as reported by mental health promotions officer Marisa Mottola, who was assigned to assist through data collection from participants at varying intervals throughout the program.

“Psychologists and neuroscientists alike have evidence that a person’s worldview becomes narrow as a result of mental illness, particularly in cases of depression and anxiety. The Art for Wellness program expands perception through the rich vocabulary of visual aesthetics by increasing wonder and curiosity and engaging the intellect through playfulness. Within the relaxed, non-competitive and supportive atmosphere of the studio, each participant creates art that matters to them.”

People begin to notice color, light, shadow, shape and form in unique and interesting ways that become part of a new language of expression. The Art for Wellness Program links our common need for expression and connection through materiality by utilizing a wide variety of art experiences.

What is Art therapy, anyway?

Art Therapy is a form of psychotherapy guided by a credentialed art therapist to encourage self-expression through art. This process is meant to lead to a better understanding of feelings, thoughts and emotions and help to resolve deeper issues. Humans have demonstrated a need to express content and emotion through visual art in every culture around the world and throughout history.

Art is the best tool to explore non-verbal messages through imagery produced by clients in order to assist with understanding specific pathologies. Rhonda’s program differs from traditional methods in that there is a focus on learning visual art skills as a way to increase both subjective and objective perception.

Each person in the program embarks upon a completely different journey of discovery where they are encouraged to reach with their imaginations and to explore their courage and what they are drawn to. Participants risk failure by bringing forth new creations, which is essential to any learning process.

According to Rhonda, there are times when participants need assistance to overcome frustration and fear as they take action towards bringing new ideas to life. Working with and managing frustration is where the deepest learning and growth takes place.

To be a witness to one’s experiences through art making is incredibly liberating especially for those who have been “over-medicalized” in a system that often narrowly defines them.

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“Art has always been the primary lens through which I engage with the world.

What I know to be true is that the process of making art can activate deeply internal and primal feelings which often incorporate new perspectives. Without taking the space and time to honour the creative process of some kind, new perspectives will often remain invisible.

In my experience, there is a growing need for person-centered models that incorporate and shine light upon the individual’s worldview, capabilities and visions of well-being while engaging their intellect, memory, sense of play or curiosity in a way that helps them grow. The French philosopher John Paul Sartre stated that ‘freedom is what you do with what has been done to you.’

My work with the public has been diverse over the years spanning arts organizations, museums, universities, community festivals and the corporate sector. Since moving to Southwest Sydney 6 years ago I have been increasingly drawn to working with vulnerable populations, including work with refugees.

Exposing people to artistic thinking increases experiences of joy and freedom, and many begin to challenge their ideas and their experience of life for the first time.

Art therapists traditionally work with clients by providing an arena for the client to express their problem or trauma through imagery and then go forth with therapeutic interventions geared toward problem-solving. Rhonda’s approach does not use art as a way of solving problems, although that can be the result.

Instead, she’s interested in looking at, listening and responding to the questions that arise in people when they create. “What I most often see is a process of revitalization on a deep level when people experience the beginnings of linking their intellect, courage, newly found skills and imagination together. Often the artefacts (artwork) they produce touch them in ways they instinctively understand. When people synchronize with their own natural rhythms and creativity they begin to accept themselves and their world in a more integrated way.”

For future information about registering for the Art For Wellness programs, you can contact Rhonda through her website Deevisions.

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Lastly, Rhonda provides advice on you can help someone suffering from a mental health problem:

If possible, approach people without labeling them. Sometimes a diagnosis can hang over a person throughout their life until they can only see themselves in relation to the limitations of that diagnosis –that is a bigger tragedy than any illness or disability.

Remain improvisational in your approach – be willing to lend an open hand and an open mind.

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