The limitations cast upon people by severe injuries are no barriers to art. So says Sharon White, an artist and art therapist who works with brain and spinal injury clients, amongst others.

The example of Laura – whose named has been changed for anonymity – paints a clear example of this. A spinal injury left her completely paralysed from the neck down, but able to think and speak coherently.

“You have to work with what movement you do have and take it from there,” says Sharon. “She could move her head left and right and up and down, so she had been painting very childlike pictures, using her mouth, relearning what she used to do with her hand.

“We decided to look at the Impressionist movement, including Monet, and then into Pointillism, which was developed by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac [in 1886].”

Pointillism is a painting technique in which small dots of colour are applied in patterns to form an image. It was an ideal fit with the movement available to Laura.

“The dots were so much easier than shading and we were able to use her disability as
a positive. She’s since been accepted as a student by the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists Association.”

Art therapy emerged in the 1950s as brutal asylums gave way to mental health hospitals keen to try experimental therapies.

Today the profession is state-regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council. NICE guidelines validate the therapy, particularly in relation to schizophrenia, although Sharon admits more evidence is needed to unequivocally prove its worth in healthcare.

Unlike many therapies – which go on behind a wall of privacy, protected by confidentiality rules – Sharon’s sessions take patients out into the open. This approach has its origins in her 17 years as an art teacher in a former life.

“I work confidentially, but the teacher in me wants to celebrate the work of my patients. Some art therapists tend to do sessions and then put the work from that session into a folder which is put in a drawer in the office.

“I put that work where people will see it by creating galleries and exhibitions, which give patients a goal to work towards. It doesn’t matter if its exhibition-worthy at the end, it’s the process of getting there that’s important.”

Sharon balances her week between time in her Dorset art studio and therapy sessions, often with people affected by traumatic brain injuries, with some teaching thrown in too. In therapy, engaging patients in the first session requires finding “the hook”, she says.

“Just because someone has a brain or spinal injury, it doesn’t mean they have lost their social awareness or attitude towards art. So, I can’t just turn up with my paintbrush and expect to make their world better.

“The first thing I need to do is get them involved in an activity they believe in. If they’ve not been artistic before, you have to understand their background.

“A 19-year-old lad who’s just had a motorbike accident is probably not going to want to go straight into Impressionism.

“I would look at their interests, anything from graffiti to a particular country they’ve been to, and then develop a project to work on. Even if it’s just a thank you card for a member of staff, the activity has to be purposeful.

“Once they start seeing progress, they get the feel-good factor and their art skills almost develop by default.”

Achieving this feel-good factor is all the more challenging when depression lingers in the backdrop of Sharon’s sessions.

The prevalence of depression after brain injury is said to be as high as 50 per cent according to some studies. Meanwhile, up to 30 per cent of people with long-term disabilities are thought to be living with depression.

Art offers a focal point, or anchor, in the storm of bad feelings that can follow severe injuries. Anger (at one’s self or others), mourning the way life was before and frustration at new limitations are common – even if the patient doesn’t cross the line into a clinical depression diagnosis.

Art’s status as a means of alleviating anxieties has also spilled over into the commercial world with the recent boom in colouring-in books for adults.

At one point in 2015, they made up five of the UK’s top 10 Amazon best-sellers’ chart, and their sales growth continues.

The ‘mindfulness’ movement, in which we’re encouraged to focus on thoughts, feelings and the world around us in the present moment, also has more people involved in artistic pursuits.

Yet art has a complicated relationship with depression. As neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen wrote in her book, The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius, artistic souls may also be prone to depression.

She theorises that creative minds are less likely to easily adapt to new situations. This is because they are more sceptical of the information given to them by authority figures.

The result is a complex inner world filled with shades of grey rather than black and white. This mindset, she writes, can lead to feelings of isolation and alienation, which cause stress and depression – which paradoxically provokes more creativity.

Grey, and the intangible, uncertain connotations Andreasen pins on it, is a colour which runs throughout Sharon’s work. “I’ve been working in the grey all my life. Art is subjective and ambiguous and di cult to quantify. But you can’t put a price on the value of allowing somebody to completely and freely express themselves.”

Her use of art to tackle depression, brought on by injury, and perhaps intensified by the nuances of the creative mind, involves focusing on the future.

“When someone is severely injured, there is often too much focus on the past and the present; the life they have lost and the challenges of now.

“But why can’t we look to the future? If they always wanted to go to South Africa, for example, let’s do a project on that, even if they might never get to go there. It’s about bringing back positivity and awareness of the wider world into their life.”

Sharon makes a convincing case for art as a great healer, thanks to her direct experience of it. She discovered art therapy accidentally, when she took to painting after suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome as a result of pleurisy, amid the strains of life as a teacher.

“I lived and breathed my job and resented having only 24 hours in my day – sleep wasn’t on my agenda. My body just gave up in the end, but surprisingly my creativity savedme; both emotionally and physically.

“I started to paint with energy and excitement; it was like putting fuel in a car. Having experienced the power of art first hand, I wanted to share my experiences with others.”

For all of Sharon’s good work as a therapist, however, is there an argument that volunteer-led art sessions would be just as effective – and cheaper – for neuro-rehab providers?

“You will always get volunteers who will come in and do crafty things, which can be fantastic for mindfulness and escapism.

“A professional, on the other hand, will have a vested interest in the individual, and their progress, from the beginning to the end of the programme and will be very project-based.You don’t get this if you just say, ‘today we’re going to paint some jam jars’ and then move onto the next thing the following week.

“You also find art therapists collaborating with all the other therapies, like music and physio, working together to help the patient.”

With tenacious people like Sharon driving the art therapy movement, expect to see the growing field in action at a clinic or unit near you soon.