Wed | Nov 14, 2018

Vancouver woman uses art therapy to cope with mental illness

Published:Sunday | September 16, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Linda Harbaugh of Vancouver chats with art class participants at the National Alliance on Mental Illness Southwest Washington in Vancouver, Washington.
Vancouver artist Linda Harbaugh adds a little colour while creating a pocketbook journal.

VANCOUVER, Washington (AP):

Linda Harbaugh knew she had to leave her home on Livingston Mountain - the space was too depressing.

She walked a nearby gravel path in flip flops and on to a main road. When she reached the base of the mountain, she didn't want to go back up, so she kept walking.

It was spring 2015, and at the time, Harbaugh had vertigo and had been vomiting for about three days, she said, after stopping medications she took for mental illnesses. Harbaugh suffers from anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder from past events.

During her walk, she became tired, she said, and at one point, she lay down on the side of the road, with suicidal thoughts creeping into her mind.

"I was hoping someone would come and help me. I felt so awful, so sick," Harbaugh said.

Her silent pleas would soon be answered.

Harbaugh eventually reached a Safeway about six miles from her home. Her phone was dead, and she couldn't remember anyone's number. She sat down and began to cry.

"This is the end. I can't walk up that mountain again," Harbaugh said she thought at the time. "It seems kind of silly, but when you're in that state, when your brain pathways aren't working right, and you're getting these thoughts in your head, they're not thoughts that you're making, they just come."

Harbaugh felt a tap on her shoulder and looked up. A young man asked her if she was okay and if she needed help. She explained how she was feeling, and he told her he understood and gave her some money for food. His kindness gave her new-found strength.

"Him acknowledging me was enough to give me the energy to get on my feet again and start the same walk back home," Harbaugh said.

She says the interaction highlights the importance of reaching out to people who appear to be struggling.

Since her walk, Harbaugh has been hospitalised for her mental illnesses and became increasingly involved in the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Last summer, she started leading an art therapy group, where she finds added support, with her friend Georgia Gerrior through NAMI Southwest Washington.

Harbaugh said that the idea of leading a group, previously, would have been inconceivable. Even leaving the house with her anxiety was extremely difficult.

"I'm so much more aware of my emotions and my feelings and what needs to be done to keep them in check, which is a lot of coping because it's an illness I'm going to have my whole life," Harbaugh said. "When you have that, you need to learn how to keep living while you have that illness."

Harbaugh also practises meditation and mindfulness, but art therapy has been particularly beneficial. Her class has made masks and done printmaking and watercolour and acrylic paintings.

Research shows that art therapy can help with mental illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD as a means of promoting self-discovery, self-esteem, emotional release, and stress relief.

Harbaugh said that art therapy keeps her focused on the moment. The class does therapeutic techniques, such as scribble and pass, where someone quickly scribbles on paper and then passes it to the next person to do the same, eventually forming a picture.

One of the most fulfilling aspects of the class, Harbaugh said, is that she can now help those who struggle like her. She said that what she has gone through has made her "experienced at being depressed and having anxiety".

Gerrior said that Harbaugh has evolved significantly and is helpful to students: "She has the answers now."

• Information from:

The Columbian,