Transforming Lives with the Arts Training Curriculum for Peer Specialists

Transforming Lives with the Arts Training Curriculum for Peer Specialists
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

What’s in it for You and Why

The Academy of Peer Services has just launched a new online course on arts and creativity, designed to provide New York State (and beyond) peer specialists with a learning tool on how to use the arts for emotional healing and wellness. It demonstrates how using the arts has become a major source of recovery for persons who have experienced mental health challenges. The elective course is unique because, to our knowledge, it is the first time that peer specialists can get credit for a course dedicated to art and creativity. The goal is for the arts to be used for personal enlightenment, to “tell our stories” and to advocate for mental health change.

Help Me! by Laura Anne Walker

Art has become an increasingly popular avenue for peers to express themselves. Many peers are showcasing their work in exhibits and in galleries; peers are writing memoirs and biographies related to their mental health experiences. All art forms, including visual, literary, music, dance, humor, etc. are acknowledged in the course. You will discover that some peer artists are making a living and that peer-operated art centers are increasing in numbers throughout the country.

The first section of the course focuses on creativity, defined as the use of imagination or original ideas and/or art. The terms creativity and art are used interchangeably. The goal is not to train people to be artists but to encourage people to be creative, which is universal. The art we speak of does not involve psychology, theory, diagnosis or treatment. This is particularly important for persons with histories of trauma who need a safe place to create and express themselves. The role of the peer specialist will be supportive, without any barriers, goals or judgment.

The arts have gained momentum in recent years due to an increasing number of studies that show how creative expression has a powerful impact on health and well-being. Studies indicate wide-ranging effects on cognitive health as well as physical health showing that creative expression can lower blood pressure while boosting the immune system reducing stress, promoting relaxation, a sense of well- being and reducing anxiety. The Arts in Medicine Program has taken advantage of these studies by providing a role for artists in the primary healthcare system. Artists, not art therapists, began to deliver “art” at the bedside, to engage people in a variety of creative endeavors that include visual art, music, dance and storytelling among others. As the author of the course, I believe there could be opportunities to develop something similar for peer specialists to deliver art-making in psychiatric settings or in residential programs.

In the second section of the course, peers will learn about pioneering activists who contributed to our consumer/survivor history with visuals, slogans and songs that illustrated protests against the abuse of psychiatry in the 1970s. The course tells about people who were important in the early peer liberation movement who also used art for social justice, like Howie the Harp, who had his harmonica in his pocket ready to play to create peace and harmony.

Our present-day arts leaders are ones you might be familiar with, including: Isaac Brown, an artist and administrator of Baltic Street, Yumi Yumiko, director of the NYC Mural Project, and Darby Penny, who directs the historic Suitcase Project. There are interviews and visuals of art done by current day artists splashed throughout the course as well as webinars and videos to enjoy.

Art can permeate everything you do: by dressing creatively with color and flair, wearing a button, hat, being a natural communicator, and using humor. You can be an “artsy” peer specialist who adds spice to support groups with songs, word games, circle dancing, drumming circles and storytelling. The course is just a beginning. I hope that someone will take up the lead to carry arts for peers to a new level. Maybe you?

Note: To contact Gayle Bluebird, email

Pullout: “You can be an ‘artsy’ peer specialist who adds spice to support groups with songs, word games, circle dancing, drumming circles and storytelling…”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *