During my time as an art therapist at Tribeca Therapy, I have seen the small, underrecognized art therapy field grow and begin to garner respect and visibility. Yet a recent high-profile endorsement of art therapy by Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, has called into question if all PR is positive for the profession. Her endorsement raises ethical concerns, given that President Trump and her husband’s administration consistently has held positions that are a threat to the very people the art therapy community serves.
The Downside of Karen Pence’s Support For Art Therapy
At first glance, one would think the art therapy community would be thrilled to get such highly visible, national support. Art therapists’ very own national overseeing body–the American Art Therapy Association–gave an enthusiastic and welcoming response when Ms. Pence first announced her cause. There are many within the art therapy community that argue that any press is good press and that this could lead to increased fiscal support.
Yet, in my NYC art therapy practice at Tribeca Therapy, I have seen firsthand the emotional impact that the current administration and political climate has had on people’s health, well-being, and sense of safety. Furthermore, it is hard to ignore the discriminatory practices of the administration and the vocal opposition that they have had to mental health care.
The most recent example occurred on March 7th when Congress unveiled the American Health Care Act, which ends the requirement that Medicaid cover mental health care. This is just one of many instances when the Trump/Pence administration has been in direct conflict with the advance of art therapy. The policy threatens those most in need of treatment.
Art Therapy Serves Many Communities
Both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have written about this dilemma and the position that many art therapists are taking. The Times article cites that Ms. Pence has been active in an art therapy program called Tracy’s Kids since 2011, raising funds to hire art therapists at the Riley Hospital for Children. On one hand, it is heart-warming that Ms. Pence does have a real history and investment in this cause. But, one cannot pick and choose causes.
If these sick children at that hospital can benefit from art therapy, what about refugees? Or victims of sexual abuse? Or a member of the LGBTQ community? These are just a few of the groups of people that the current administration has declared war on. Many art therapists, including me in my NYC art therapy practice, feel that if Karen Pence wants to support and further the field of art therapy, she must stand up for LGBTQ people, Muslims, minorities, survivors of sexual assault, refugees, immigrants, and people with disabilities. Art therapy serves a range of communities that deserve support.
Art Therapists For Human Rights
Some art therapists are taking this call to action into their own hands. Kate Nora Broitman, an art therapist in Chicago, started a group on Facebook called, Art Therapists for Human Rights. Ms. Broitman and the more than 700 art therapists that have joined the site call on Karen Pence to “publicly take action…for all of those that are in danger as a result of policies of the current administration.” The New York Times quotes Ms. Broitman as stating, “you can’t shine a spotlight on art therapy without being accountable to the real danger our clients currently face.”
As an NYC art therapist, I, like Broitman, cannot separate my desire for art therapy to grow as a field and become more widespread with my ethics and my beliefs about basic human rights. As much as I believe in the power and furtherment of art therapy, human rights are a basic and necessary starting point. If Ms. Pence truly wants to make a difference in people’s lives, in their mental and physical well-being, she should start by standing up for human rights.