Editor’s note: The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is a hotline for people in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. When people call, text, or chat 988, they will be connected to trained counselors who will listen and provide resources and support.
This is the third in a series of occasional stories about suicide. Read the first one here and the second here.
The red dragon meant anger, and it snaked with quiet precision through the early drawings in Jane Avila’s art portfolio.
Her youngest son, Jonathan, had died by suicide at 14, and to help make sense of things she’d enrolled in a certificate program through what was then the Art Therapy Institute in Dallas.
She had tried to engage in other kinds of postvention, like support groups, but in the end she needed something intuitive rather than cognitive. Her early artwork, a series of mandalas, or circles, conveyed what words couldn’t: Avila was angry at herself, and she was angry at the residential treatment center where her son had died.
Buoyed by the clarity she gleaned from her program, Avila opened The Art Station, a Fort Worth nonprofit that offers art therapy to children and adults. In the nearly two decades since, the organization has created space for more than 40,000 others to process their own griefs through art’s visual language.
‘In the visual world, in a safe place’
When Jonathan died, Avila sought help amid her spiraling: a support group, a therapist, a psychiatrist, medication. She also researched, endlessly, trying to find solace in her own expertise.
“I read every book on suicidality that I could find. My head would spin,” she said. “It was all intellectual, verbal. Information in, information out.”
Avila was a clinical social worker at the time but temporarily quit her job. She was newly uncertain of her ability to help someone else through a crisis, she said. Then, the flier came in the mail.
The Art Therapy Institute in Dallas, which no longer exists, was offering a certificate program in art therapy for a limited time, she remembers. Avila, who studied art in college, enrolled. The assignments unearthed something within her that talk therapies hadn’t.
“I truly believe that (art therapy) saved my life. I do,” she said. “If I hadn’t found that creative outlet — in the visual world, in a safe place — I would probably have not been able to move forward. I don’t think you get cured, I don’t think you get better. I think you just learn to move forward.”
Art therapy is a mental health treatment that uses art-making and artwork to help people heal. In Texas, a licensed professional counselor can apply for an art therapy specialty designation if they meet certain education and clinical requirements. At the very least, they need a master’s degree in art therapy or a counseling-related field, over 2,000 hours of supervised experience and to pass an art therapy exam from the Art Therapy Credentials Board, Inc.
When Avila enrolled in her certificate program, research on the efficacy of art therapy was relatively scant, she remembers. Still, she knew it worked for her and thought it would work for others. Seeing the lack of options in Fort Worth, she founded The Art Station in 2003.
Nearly two decades later, a small but growing body of research suggests that, for some people — like the elderly, health care professionals, cancer patients and inmates — art therapy can help improve emotional wellbeing. More research is needed for other groups, according to a 2018 literature review of more than two dozen studies.
For Avila, the method’s power comes from its ability to uncover hidden emotion.
She didn’t notice the red dragon, for example, until near the end of her certificate program. She was gathering pieces to display in an art show before graduation when she saw him appear, again and again, in her artwork. He symbolized the anger she struggled to verbalize after her son’s death, she decided.
“It’s pretty sneaky how things come out if they need to,” Avila said.
The quilt and the whirlwind
Years later, in 2009, Peggy Marshall stood in front of a grief-themed display at a quilt show in Houston and experienced a similar reveal.
She’d lost her husband to suicide four years earlier and, like Avila, had gathered her own library about depression and suicide. The books hadn’t held any answers. The quilts, though, illuminated something within her she hadn’t yet understood.
“I so connected with them, because it was visual,” she said. “Colors and patterns, and it’s like, that’s all those things inside of me that I’m trying to get out and express, and it’s not working with journaling. It’s not working with therapy. It’s not working with all this other stuff.”
Marshall had long been in business and public relations. The memory of those quilts clung to her, and when she returned home she purchased a swath of batik fabrics and set to work. Her final product, a series of three panels she would later hang above her stairwell, clarified her own grief journey in a way words had not.
Marshall is now The Art Station’s CEO. She read Avila’s story in a news article not long after making those panels. She kept the article and, later, called Avila to connect over coffee.
For Marshall, art therapy works because suicide grief is unique. She calls it a whirlwind, and within that whirlwind swarm emotions that may not accompany other forms of loss: undeserved guilt over actions done or undone, anger at the person who died, and a pressing need to understand why they did what they did.
Amid that whirlwind, art therapy invites people to externalize what they’re feeling.
“So it’s not in your head, so it’s external to you and you’re actually looking at it,” she said. “You’re processing it more visually. It’s easier to see things. It’s easier to understand things.”
Bringing what’s hidden into the light matters, she said. Her husband, who struggled with depression, didn’t like to talk about it. Now, she shares for him. She hopes her work at The Art Station helps people who grapple with grief to do so openly. “The secrecy ends now,” she said.
Want to connect with The Art Station?
‘Everyone is an artist’
As for Avila, she no longer takes clients at The Art Station, but she remains on the board and she still makes art. She just finished painting a pumpkin with The Scream by Edvard Munch. She’ll auction it, along with art created by people like Opal Lee and Mayor Mattie Parker at The Art Station’s Public Figures, Private Artists event in October.
“Art therapists believe that everyone is an artist,” she said. “They may not have discovered it yet.”
After Jonathan died, Avila remembers someone telling her that, once she finds “the gift” in her loss, she’ll know she’s able to move forward. Back then, the idea infuriated her.
Years later, she understands. She knows now that, if he hadn’t died, she likely wouldn’t be an art therapist. Fort Worth likely wouldn’t have The Art Station. They serve as gifts in her son’s stead.
“That doesn’t replace Jonathan in any way. It could never replace him, but it’s something of worth that is there for the world,” she said. “And you know, when I think of him, if he had grown up, I think he would’ve been a gift to the world.”
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.