The wellbeing of artists themselves is an important consideration within the Artists Training Program. This is a self-care workshop presented by Katherine Hubbard, an artist and arts therapist who also works as a counsellor for young people experiencing mental health issues. During 2009 and 2010 Katherine was part of a team of health professionals working with Festival for Healthy Living (FHL) artists in the Wyndham Project in Melbourne’s outer west. Katherine’s workshop invites artists to increase their awareness of some of the factors affecting their own wellbeing and to exercise self-care as they work within schools and communities.

Katherine Hubbard has a background in drama therapy, theatre arts, and youth counselling. She has worked extensively as an actor in community and educative theatre, and has combined her drama therapy and mental health experience to work in contexts including special needs, domestic and family violence, victims in refuges and with NGOs. Katherine says: “I am aware of the difficulties of working in varied community settings with populations not always well versed in the arts. I am also aware of the challenges facing artists, such as the spaces they are given to work in, personal responsibility and confidentiality issues, lack of resources and high expectations (both personally and from the organisations that I have been contracted to.)”

The text below is an adapted transcription of Katherine Hubbard’s workshop presentation.

Being a drama therapist you have nothing to work with, and so you go in by the seat of your pants. But from nothing, something will always happen, and there is a magic about that. That’s my “moment.” My “un-moment” would be organisations saying “we need a drama therapist but what do they do?” For an explanation of what Katherine means by “moment’ and “un-moment”, see the Magic Moments activity. There is a sense when you go into a school that there is a lack of understanding for artists. For me as a drama therapist it is the same – I am taking a creative arts approach, but often going up against more of a psychological approach.

Activity One: Practice versus Environment

“By yourselves, work on a sound, a gesture, a word, how you feel as an artist making your own art. What does that feel like?”

Exercise: In pairs, participants make a sound and gesture that represents their practice as an artist (“A sound”). Next, participants find a sound and gesture that represents their practice as an artist within a certain environment, for example, the Festival for Healthy Living setting (“B sound”).

Still in pairs, participants model each others’ “A” and “B” sounds and gestures. Then, standing one behind the other, they present the sounds and gestures of one artist’s A and B gestures and sounds. They may be harmonious, they may be contradictory, there is no right or wrong and everyone’s experience will be different. The person whose gesture it is stands at the front. Swap over and repeat. Have some willing participants show their gestures and sounds to the group.

Discussion points: Using the movement quality as a guide, what did the gestures and sounds tell you about the differences between A and B? What was the feeling for you doing sound/gesture A? Sound/gesture B? (Check in with any pairs who had very conflicting gestures and ask permission to work in more detail on their presentation.)

Explore questions about personal responsibility: How much can we actually do? What is feasible and realistic and how much pressure is internal or external? When do we know when we are on the edge of our capacity? Looking at those contrasting feelings it brings up the question of your health – going out into schools with children who have experienced trauma, abuse – you know from the atmosphere, whether you’ve been told or not. How do you look after yourself, what is your responsibility? How do you know when and where, what steps can you take to protect yourselves?

It is useful to ask yourselves, as artists, what do you need from me as a Mental Health Professional? As an artist I know the experiences you have had of back rooms and so on. One important thing to understand is that crisis first aid is where everything goes wrong and you are not able to do a lot about that. So: how do you put a band-aid on, and then how do you bring about prevention – how do you prevent “crisis” happening? The emotional toll this process takes is a big issue that we should explore.


Trauma means wound, and the ways you deal with things that have been overwhelming. You can experience one experience of trauma or many. When you see trauma, you are more likely to see multiple- or hyper-arousal. You may see depression in secondary school students, less in primary. If they seem to be in another world, something may have come into their world. If they demonstrate sexual behaviours – masturbatory, touching themselves – this may be an indicator of sexual abuse. Attention-reducing behaviour, where they can’t sit still, might be that they are trying to reduce something else that’s going on their heads – it’s done to distract themselves.

Trauma can be one event or many over time. Some people bounce back from horrific trauma, others may suffer only a small trauma and be marked. Another thing to look for is obsessive, repetitive mannerisms. Trauma may be major (sexual abuse, violence) or secondary (bad operation, accident, etc.) These things may or may not produce trauma. Basically, if grief is overwhelming, then it is traumatic.

Identifying Trauma

Any trauma causes a greater circulation of cortisone in the brain, which is prompting you to either bolt or have a go at someone else. This creates a sense of being a victim – everyone is out to get me – or blaming someone else. Blame-reducing can be an indicator of trauma. Disassociation is probably the biggest indicator of trauma – this is often easy to overlook because these students are compliant. A new diagnosis of childhood trauma is due to come out this year (2010) – we, as mental health professionals think there will be a massive amount of diagnosis, recognising that the child has been exposed to something that has overwhelmed them.

FHL Manager 1: How does the artist respond? When it affects us, what do we do?

Katherine: Many of you have had experiences, but the reality is if you work in any professions where you are opening yourself up to emotional situations, you are opening yourselves to secondary trauma. It important, therefore, to work out how you deal with your emotions and sensitivities. Vicarious trauma is picking up the flotsam and jetsam of other people’s distress. It must affect you. If you notice that you are thinking about someone the next day, then it has got through to you and you need to check in.

Artist 1: What if someone comes up with a problem and you don’t know what to do?

FHL Manager 2: That’s the role of the health professional.

Katherine: You need to let the health professional know. You can suggest to the health professional there is someone they should talk to. Artists should not have to come away with the weight of that on their shoulders.

FHL Manager 2: The reality is that FHL projects don’t all have a health promotions officer yet, but you should know to whom in the school that you should report. Then you have done something.

Artist 1: We need to be very clear with every project who is to be contacted: this should be a standard part of our process.

Katherine: If it’s sexual abuse, it must be immediately reported by the teacher to DHS. If it is talked about too much, you may perjure yourself. You must let the child know that if they tell you something, if it is anything serious, then these things may have to be told to another adult.

Artist 2: But when the young person can’t say something, that is what disturbs me.

Artist 3: I was working with a child who had something amiss: she punched another child in the stomach.

Artist 1: Some kids connect more easily with certain people.

Artist 3: FHL needs to develop guidelines on how to deal with certain issues that arise.

FHL Manager 1: Looking at the responsibility and the role of the artist in terms of communities that have been traumatised: how do artists deal with that, but then how do they look after themselves?

Katherine: What is the policy of the agency? Of the Festival for Healthy Living? You need to be absolutely explicit: this is your ethical obligation. Then it becomes easier to act. You need to be clear about policy of agency.

FHL Manager 1: I have had experience of a friend carrying the burden and letting her know she does not have to put up with this but must let someone know.

Artist 1: Is there a tactful way of dealing with this? Some terrible injustices are happening.

Katherine: We frequently get examples and they are not taken up. The harsh reality is that you are offering them a project with limitations – we can’t do everything. What is our individual capacity as one human being working for a limited time in a school? Hopefully, health professionals can take it up, can make links so that the individuals can get help after project is over.

Dealing with Crisis Point

We need to create a cradle underneath the child or the young person; but how do we create a cradle for you? What happens when you get to the crisis point? What can we do? The recognition of signs of crisis is first thing we need to do. These are some of the warning signs you need to look out for:

Behavioural Warning Signs

  • “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can” (ad nauseam)
  • “I can just keep doing it” (heaps of adrenaline and cortisone rushing around)
  • “I am so damned capable I can do it”
  • Thinking about the project all the time
  • Black humour – swearing, black jokes, inappropriate humour, etc
  • Drinking a can of V after a strong coffee
  • Drug abuse
  • Being a control freak
  • “I’m the only one who understands”: isolation, martyrdom, and indispensability.

Physical Signs

  • Sleeplessness
  • permanent butterflies (part-exciting, part-overload)
  • stopping eating (stressarexia)
  • clumsy (e.g., hitting head, bumping into things)
  • disconnected from other people, lose interest in others
  • grumpy and short-tempered (“get on with it!”)
  • Losing things (keys, etc.)
  • risk-taking (running lights, etc)
  • unable to accept help
  • inflexibility
  • general overload.

Artists need to know the warning signals and recognise them before it is too late. We then need to be able to take a step back and reassess. The choices you have at this point are you bail out or you continue – take a risk and see what happens.

First Aid

  • Call for help.
  • force yourself to do something physically active – go outside, get fresh air, walk, ground yourself.
  • Practice stretching.
  • Practice meditation at all times so that you will never get to that stressed stage.
  • Find someone within FHL you can talk to.
  • Take a perspective check – look down and see what is really happening. Choose a close family member or friend to help you put things into perspective.

It’s also important to understand that it’s not a “do or die” situation. You ask the question “was it better that we did it rather than not – did we do more good than harm?”

FHL Manager 2: The aims within our charter are so ambitious – we never achieve everything.

Artist 4: It’s the responsibility to people that is uppermost for me.

Artist 1: You have to come up with a strategy of managing that snowstorm for yourself.

FHL Manager 2: We keep trying to do more, raising the bar.

FHL Manager 1: There is both self-care and organisational care. Also, the responsibility of the organisation that needs to be examined and unpacked. So it’s about advocacy and assertiveness, and not feeling bad about that.

Artist 2: The co-ordinator is a pivotal role – they are the nexus point for the projects. maybe a structural process is required, reassessing that role.

FHL Manager 1: FHL needs to examine all the learnings, and identify where stresses are too great, how to recognise signs and address them and list some warning signs to look out for.

Activity Two: Improvised Scenario:

An artist has been contracted to work in a school as part of the FHL. The school does not have a regular adequate space and the artist’s skill is movement/circus. The teacher is quite controlling of his/her students and likes there to be a lot of structured workshop plans. He/she often interferes with the group process, making suggestions about the production side of the festival. She/he is very product-oriented and often uses the threat of removing errant students from the festival performance if they continue to not behave. His/her strengths are a keen interest in the festival, particularly the performance element, and a capacity for organising the class.

This activity was run using a drama therapy-style structure of asking players to swap roles to see what happens with a different approach.

Questions for consideration:

  • How can we adjust situations to manage realistic goals?
  • How do we enable the teacher, not disable them, without giving up autonomy?
  • What are the expectations of artists regarding the staff of FHL?