How clinical psychologist Cindi Cassady uses art therapy to treat Ndera’s trauma patients

Cindi Cassady, a U.S national, has been living and working in Rwanda as a clinical psychologist at the Ikizere Centre, Ndera Hospital. She has also been doing private practice, and as an artist herself, she introduced art therapy both for the children and adults seeking psychological therapy in Rwanda. She shares her experience in using art to transform people’s lives.

How and when did you start linking art and your therapy practice?

For about 15 years I used art therapy for children and I saw that it was really effective in helping them express their feelings. Sometimes children don’t have the verbal skills to express with words how they are feeling, so art is a good medium for them to express themselves.

I took art certification courses because you have to interpret the meaning, the use of colours and placement on the page of the drawing. That is the technical psychological part, but sometimes people think they have to be artists to do therapy but that is not true.

What has the experience been like for you?

When I came to Rwanda I worked with many traumatised people and people get tired of telling their story, they don’t want to talk about details and the horrible things that happened, and sometimes using art is a way of helping them get out what they need to express — but they don’t have to talk about it.

They can talk about the drawing and painting and what it means to them and it is very healing. This technique in psychology is called projective, so you project onto something what you are feeling inside.

Interestingly while doing private practice I have seen a number of women who have asked to form a group because they don’t want to tell and talk, they would rather express themselves through art. I think it’s a new practice here, as most people are focused on training psychotherapeutic theories, techniques and medication but art is a completely different form of expressing emotion.

When I use it with clients they like it. Once adults get over the “drawing is for children idea” they really enjoy it. I have had positive results with it.

For people who consider themselves poor artists, how are you able to interpret their drawings and paintings?

You look at the colours they use and the feeling you get when you see the pictures. Feelings of anger, rage or fear can be seen in dark colours like red, and black, which is different from someone painting green trees or happier colours. It, however, depends on each individual and what they are projecting.

Is there a way this medium has personally benefited you, as a psychologist?

As a psychologist listening to people’s stories and pain, you hold that, keep it inside you and you have to do something with it. Because of our laws and work ethics you cannot share people’s stories in order to get it out. Art for me also helps express the pain of other people, my frustration that can’t sometimes fix things or make it better for them.

What form of art do you mostly focus on?

My focus is really on daily life and how it affects them. I focus mostly on mothers and babies because women wear so many hats and yet they seem more colourful in life.

Besides the ongoing women artists exhibition, what other exhibitions have you participated in?

Before this exhibition, I had another exhibition at BPR with artist Epa Binamungu, where we did lots of small paintings, a lot of water colour and ink, although I like trying new mediums so this was the first time I was using alcoholic ink.

Cindi Cassady – L’Amour d’une Mère, 2020

What other mediums of therapy have you been using?

While in the US I was using another therapeutic technique called sand play, a box of sand with many objects and figures and the person can put them in the sand, and that also is a projection or story of what is going on with them. We use this technique at the children’s centre in Ndera.

Going forward, how do you envision your art career in Rwanda?

I would like to try out new exhibitions and a solo exhibition. My art is very connected to the psychologist in me. I plan to do an art therapy group for women who are depressed and that’s next on the horizon for me — and that will be a scientific research project, to publish the results and show that we can reduce depression with the use of art. What I would love to see in Rwanda is see people certified as art therapists. There are no schools or degrees here, but that is kind of a dream for the future, training people in psychology and art and helping people use art therapy.

(published by Sharon Kantengwa in The New Times on May 21, 2020)