Monday marked World Mental Health Day, an initiative with goals of education, awareness and advocacy. The theme this year was “psychological first aid” to support people in distress.
Society has come a long way from nearsighted solutions, which blame distressed victims.
Life can get messy. The music can get too loud. You can stagger and fall on marshmallow cement. While mental health is more than an absence of mental illness, problems are monumental. There is trauma, neglect, depression, abuse, addictions, stress, dementia, heartache, bereavement and still more problems caused by structural inequalities like poverty, violence, homelessness, hunger and discrimination.
But there also are ways of working towards mental health using creativity and play.
On my dining room floor there is a tray of play sand. It measures 38 x 60 x 10 centimetres. There’s also a blue shovel and a green rake, although I prefer to use my hands. I built two medieval-style castles, added a holstein cow and palomino horse and put in a smiling rhinoceros and baby alligator. A blonde Barbie doll in a pink ballerina dress sits in the corner. We are family.
This is sand tray therapy, which is one of many therapies used in working with children and adults.
The items are symbolic. Only I can give them meaning. Past, present and future merge in playing with sand this way. The goals are numerous: strengthening relationships, making choices, resolving conflicts and accepting oneself. The exercise is purposeful, nonverbal, nonthreatening and dynamic. Mental health is the overall concern.
Children and artists know play is fun. A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh was modelled after son Christopher Robin’s bear. H.G. Wells wrote Floor Games as a result of playing on the floor with sons George and Frank. Pearl Buck sculpted the heads of her children in plaster and clay, a “tender memory” for her later years.
Play heals. Sand tray therapy dates from the 1920s psychotherapy of Margaret Lowenfeld’s “wonder box” and “world technique.” Dora Kalff introduced a variation in the 1950s. She emphasized Carl Jung’s psychology and called it sandplay therapy.