Words from the founder on why and how The Woods Arts and Wellness came to be.

Humans have been coming together to find support through music and story-telling since we first began dancing around campfires. We’ve been attempting to make sense of the world around us and express things too hard to put into words since making marks on cave walls. Before any of us learned to speak, we all enjoyed making colourful marks on a page with waxy crayons, and bopped away to the beat of a good song, attempting to sing along without the ability to construct words (my sons 1yr old attempt of “uptown funk you up” were hilarious and explicit). Creative expression is the first language of every human. Yet somewhere along the way we learned that we are not creative, or artistic, or musical, or talented, or ____ (fill in the blank) …human? Our modern western culture tends to minimize these ways of being, knowing, learning, and healing: Which is a loss for all of us. 

I started as a professional dancer, and spending my childhood in the studio, practicing for hours, helped maintain my mental health – not the story for many, I know. You see, all emotions have accompanying physiological sensations. So, it is common for grief and trauma to result in a kind of disconnection from ourselves, our body, and those felt senses that can be overwhelming and intolerably distressing. It is a brilliant unconscious mechanism for surviving immediate suffering, but it comes at a cost. Dance spared me this by allowing me to stay in my body despite childhood grief and trauma; for my body to be a vehicle of self-expression and beauty. The Japanese composer Kojiro Umezaki said,  

“Arts are about opening up to possibility. Possibility links to hope. We all need hope.”

This has been my experience and what I was hoping to share with others when I began the journey towards becoming a therapist.  

In my thirties I was walking through grief once again and decided to go on a trip to Banff with my husband and toddler. I’d been there many times before so was prepared for the outrageous natural beauty I’d be visiting. What was extraordinary about this particular visit was the fact that I felt like I could breathe fully, till then the pain of that season had felt suffocating. The pain and grief were no less enormous, but the world itself seemed to expand – or perhaps my perceptions and experience of the world is what expanded – so that my pain and grief, as large as it was, no longer took up my entire view. This visceral experience caused a paradigm shift in my relationship with the natural world of which we humans belong. Future training in nature-based therapy was put on the agenda.  

My first masters, was an MA in psychology at Columbia University through their Spirituality Mind Body Institute. It is here that I was fortunate enough to study the research supporting a holistic approach to treating mental suffering, the science of the brain-body connection, and the impact of treating the whole person. I also elected a year-long specialization in positive psychology: a strengths-based approach to mental health that focuses on increasing wellbeing as an effective way to reduce negative symptoms. My second masters was in Counselling Psychology: Art Therapy, where I trained both as a registered clinical counsellor and as an art therapist. The Woods is built upon these foundations.  

The Woods Arts and Wellness came to be because these approaches are effective at increasing overall wellbeing, and currently severely underrepresented in mental health care. In part this is due to the medical model that dominates western cultures framing of psychological distress and wellbeing. However, the medical model can only paint part of the picture, and address part of the problem. A bio-psycho-social model of wellbeing has been around for decades: it is an understanding that each of these dimensions of a person cannot be disaggregated from the whole. Many teams of medical professionals I’ve worked with recognize this. It is why the majority of inpatient facilities employ music therapists, art therapists, rec therapists, spiritual advisors, and teams of professionals to come alongside people in their suffering, attempting to address the whole person: Mind, Body, Spirit. It is also why the UK, Australia, and more recently the US, all have subsidized programs within their healthcare systems where doctors can prescribe attendance in arts practice. The research is clear, reconnecting to these primal ways of human expression is an effective way to alleviate suffering and improve wellbeing.

But here in BC art therapy for adults is not usually covered. People don’t think of attending music therapy for depression or anxiety; or joining group art therapy to explore their struggles. It’s still considered by many as an alternative luxury. Why should these approaches only be available to individuals when their wellbeing has declined with such severity that everyday functioning is no longer possible? Or only practiced on some beautiful retreat, isolated from weekly routines and coming with a large price tag? People go to the gym to maintain physical health, but what about the maintenance of emotional and psychological health? It’s not on most people’s radar as a viable ongoing practice to sustain wellbeing. Art therapy for mental health is not a new concept, nor is music therapy, or nature-based therapy. Even though these approaches predate mental health services, it is not at the forefront of most people’s minds when they’re seriously distressed and suffering and seeking support. The perceived risk of spending money on “alternative” approaches to address real struggles can keep these proven approaches out of mind and out of reach.

With the creation of The Woods, I wanted to ensure financial situations were not adding to the problem. Being an RCC means people can access their benefits, but not everyone has coverage. There are some wonderful therapists in North Vancouver offering sliding-scale therapy, and there are also fantastic charities offering mental health services.

Nevertheless, we are the only organization with charity status offering mental health support by specialized RCCs all trained and certified in arts, body-based, and nature-based treatments. We also offer an income-based fee model, so when seeking counselling support at The Woods, you pay what you can afford. If you can commit to the full fee service, fantastic! Your payment helps cover the subsidized rates of individuals who need to pay less.

My personal passion is offering groups, and this plays out in our program offerings. Research shows that loneliness is as damaging to our physical health as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day! We all walked through the pandemic, and although a slower pace was appreciated by many of us, the damage of prolonged isolation is still felt. And so, we offer affordable group programs and one-off workshops that anyone in the community can attend. We also have an outreach program where we work in collaboration with community partners to offer group services at no cost to participants.  

We need more opportunities for community to come together and create safe spaces for genuine sharing. It can be profoundly impactful when this is layered in with a reconnection to nature, settling the nervous system, where wonder and awe can be evoked. Or while exploring a form of art making that elicits curiosity and play. In the words of John Updike,  

“What art offers us is space, a certain breathing room for the soul.”

That is what The Woods hopes to make accessible to the community, a space where you can take a deep breath and join in evidence-based practices that improve wellbeing.  

Reach out to us at [email protected] to learn more or to book an appointment.