This hand stencil art that’s covered with calcite was found to be over 66,000 years old. It is only one example of probable Neanderthal art in the caves of Spain. ( H. Collado | Max-Planck-Gesselschaft )


Two studies recently published in Science and Science Advances, have suggested that cave paintings and other cultural artefacts were almost certainly made by Neanderthals. This discovery challenges the previously commonly-held belief that art started with Homo Sapiens and it opens the door to new and exciting understandings of the role and development of symbolic expression.

Professor Chris Stringer, researcher at London History Museum, told the BBC that these findings showed that Neanderthals were capable of symbolic expression. This has implications for future research on the brain, evolution and symbolic expression. Professor Pike, a member of the research team, told the Washington Post, “It is almost the essence of being human.”

Photographs of the drawings show strange abstract shapes whose origins and meanings are unclear and they also include the outline of hands. By a new and improved method of dating, those hands were almost certainly Neanderthal. The few outlined sketches of animals are not yet attributable to Neanderthals, as some researchers think these may have been later additions made by humans. Nevertheless, these findings show that they almost certainly did make symbolic representations on cave walls. (Stringer suggests out that the title of first species to engage in symbolic art-making might even go further back than the Neanderthals. Zigzag lines marked on a shell in Indonesia date back half a million years and were probably the work of Homo Erectus…)

I have always found cave paintings incredibly moving as well as beautiful. The confident flow of the lines, the dynamism of the drawings, the interplay between movement and stillness bear witness to the skills of the artists. It is a delight to uncover detail after detail, exquisitely observed and symbolised.  As well as their amazing aesthetic qualities, the power of these paintings is that they offer both a bridge across the millennia between members of our species, and a contemporary mirror about the importance of art. We have evolved a need to make art and symbolise.

Now a new paradigm has been introduced: Neanderthals, another species, also made art and it is exciting to think about how this will further our understanding of the role of symbolic expression, creativity and evolution. It is also a reminder of the importance of creativity as a profoundly human need, even and perhaps especially in our modern world.


The start of a new year is a good time to review our lives and for some of us, making New Year’s resolutions is a helpful way to make positive changes. Although exercise and nutrition tend to feature prominently, there is a growing awareness that mental health cannot be separated from physical health.  ‘Wellbeing’ is a frequently used term and it may be helpful to re-visit some evidence-based definitions:  a 2011 report by the New Economic Foundation and supported by MIND, listed 5 ways to Wellbeing:

  • Connect (with people, in real life)
  • Be active (physically, within your own ability)
  • Take notice (taking time to look at what is around you)
  • Learn (whatever your age or ability, learn something new)
  • Give (participate in social and community activities)

As a passionate advocate for improving access to the arts, I think that participation in any art form can go a long way to meeting most, if not all the 5 ways to wellbeing.  Casting aside fears of not being good or ‘gifted’ enough to do something like singing, drawing, dancing, acting, etc., is often the first step towards starting a transformational activity.  Once there, the enjoyment of the art form takes over and the opportunity to learn with others provides an added level of connectedness. Additionally, many community arts activities are not expensive to join and many are free or low cost, so opportunities are not linked to ability to pay.

The report on ‘Creative Health Report’ by the UK All Party Parliamentary Group, details how the arts and arts therapies have helped improve lives for children, young people and adults of any age. What is clear if that once people engage in an art form, they keep to it for life as a source of joy and wellbeing. So, at the start of 2018, if you happen to be looking for a way to make positive changes to your life, do consider the arts. As well as being hugely enjoyable, they offer a lifelong support for wellbeing and, as arts therapies, also make a vital contribution to improving mental health.

Students, Mental Health and the Arts

Student, sketching by hand on canvas

My own interest in mental health started during my time at art college. In my art therapy foundation year, four of my peers experienced what I would now recognise as mental health problems including anorexia and psychotic episodes. The tragedy was that no-one in the college, including the teaching team, knew how to respond, to support, and to keep a connection with these students. They had become increasingly isolated and unreachable. Parents were contacted and asked to whisk their children back home (in one case, they had to await discharge from a psychiatric unit). Silence then ruled and they were not mentioned again and never came back. Amongst our young cohort, a sense of unease spread and although a few of us did try to make some sense of events, we all felt rather confused and helpless.

Although my experience was a long time ago, recent discussions with young graduates indicated that things have not changed a great deal within universities. Interestingly, awareness of mental health issues and how to access help was growing amongst students.

It is therefore really good news that universities are now recognising that they need a Step Change with regard to students’ mental health (StepChange). One aspect of strategy focuses on prevention and, thinking about the impact of isolation (being away from family and old friends) on the mental health of my student peers, I sincerely hope that universities will look into the innovative work done within arts in health and arts therapies that supports wellbeing and relational processes. The All Party report, Creative Health, includes a whole section evidencing the benefits of the arts within Education.  It would be great if universities adopted a truly creative approach to mental health. Students who experience emotional distress can benefit from a choice of interventions, and the arts can certainly support them in finding a path back to themselves and to others.

We are delighted to launch our first two art therapy CPD online courses. These filmed lectures by Dr Neil Springham (PhD) address ‘When thinking fails: Mentalization-based art therapy groups’ and ‘Group leadership style: Reflective practice exercise’. They include handouts and exercises.

They will be of interest to art therapists, artists in health, other professionals and students. We also hope that people who live in areas where accessing training is difficult will find these helpful.

Continuing Development Certificates are downloadable on completion.

The arts are good for our physical and mental health! This is why the UK Parliament All Party Group on Arts, Health, and Wellbeing’s report, ‘Creative health: The arts for health and wellbeing’, launched last week, is such good news! The report, accessible through this link Creative Health, gathers the best evidence from the arts, arts in health and arts therapies to show that throughout our lives, engagement in the arts helps build resilience and supports our health.

Throughout the report, testimonies highlight that expertise really does not matter – most participants initially knew little or nothing about the art forms they took up. However, many deeply enjoyed their experience and found so many benefits. As well as the sheer joy of it, there were not only health benefits but also connections with new and real social networks. The arts are deeply relational and support a sense of belonging. In an era when loneliness has been identified as a growing detrimental factor in our lives, the arts provide a bridge back to our communities and ourselves. This is true whether they are used as a career, a hobby, as arts in health or within arts therapies.

Do read this report (to which Val and Lucien each contributed), get inspired, connect with arts for yourself or with groups near you and set some up if there are none yet!

OCAT director, Dr Val Huet, participated in a debate on “What is creativity?” at the International Arts and Health conference in Bristol on the 20th June. Here is what she said:
Creativity is a profoundly human attribute, that has the potential to make us joyful, elated, engaged as well as despairing, anxious, confused but never apathetic or predictable. However we describe it, creativity is not the remit of experts or specially gifted people and does not just happen with arts – science, gardening, cooking, etc., are all included – ordinary, everyday creativity is also part of what makes us human. Creativity is the act of giving shape even abstractly to something new, whether an idea, an object or a concept, which is then taken up and evolved by many others. It allows us to find and lose ourselves in a process that takes us to new places. It is always dynamic and never leads to a full stop. One of the aspects of creativity I feel passionate about is its relational quality.
Turning back to art , Bourriaud (2002) stated: ‘art is a state of encounter’. He did not mean it as an encounter just between artist and viewer, but also amongst viewers, as this state of encounter is not just about the self, it is about meeting others. For me, good art offers a mirror of the familiar and the new, it takes something known and changes it, extends it to new realms, opening our imagination and our potential for play. This is where relational processes happen, when we encounter each other’s minds through engaging with artworks, stories, music, etc., and we playfully explore our diverse viewpoints.
Creativity is about taking risks – it is an optimistic act. Yes, things may fail and creative endeavours are always subject to the law of unintended consequences. In a risk-adverse culture, where most of the amazing scientific advances of the late 19th and early 20th century would never have got off the ground (literally! Think about the reception the aviation pioneers Wright brothers would have today in their local town hall!), we need creativity more than ever as we do the relationality it offers .
On a final note, my years of working within mental health services have made me aware that especially in the depth of the deepest emotional turmoil we all need to feel connected and valued, we need to feel that someone else holds us in mind. Creativity offers people a path back to themselves and importantly to others. Bourriaud, N. (2002). Relational Aesthetics. Paris: Les presses du Reel

Mental Health Today has published a piece about using art therapy to flourish. It highlights a number of people and organisations using art to address trauma and serious mental health issues, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, psychosis, and severe anxiety and depression.

Dr Val Huet, Chief Executive Office of the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT), as well as Director here at the Oxford College of Arts and Therapies (OCAT), comments in the article,

“Art is really part of our human communication. It’s not so much about self-expression but about communicating about yourself to others, and being understood by someone else when you’re in distress. We all need to feel understood, even if we are absolutely in the depths of psychosis, so feeling seen and recognised by another human being is really important. That’s what art helps people to do.”

Click the link below to be taken to the article in full:


I watched an interesting Horizon programme last week called, “Why did I go mad?” It looks at some current thinking on psychosis and includes art-making as a way to express and process disturbing sights and sounds. It’s available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer for the rest of May 2017:

Does “madness” exist? Is it a “chemical imbalance” or a non-medical “problem in living”? Or neither?

Image above: ‘The Ultrasounds’ at Cork University Maternity Hospital. Courtesy of

Anyone who has experienced work-related stress knows that it can have a devastating and lasting impact on emotional and physical health, and financial security.

We may work in many different organisations but the impact of working within one with high levels of work-related stress is depressingly similar. This is because high levels of work-related stress can lead to burnout, which reduces compassion and increases cynicism and detachment. As a result, trust in colleagues disappears and people feel isolated; there is often an oppositional culture: ‘I/we are the only ones that do the real work here’ together with a feeling that no one appreciates or values individual contributions and efforts. Often, there is a disinvestment in doing a good job, a race ‘to the bottom’ where employees adopt a ‘work-to-rule’ hostile attitude with each other, which also increases stress.

So why consider the arts to improve this bleak work landscape? It may seem like an optimistically naïve proposition to suggest that introducing participatory arts could make any difference at all. However, experience and evidence tell another story: for instance, work choirs have become extremely popular, as have lunchtime ballroom dancing and art classes. Employees are starting to connect with their creativity and importantly, with each other. When we cast away the notion that the arts (any arts) are the exclusive domain of the exceptionally gifted, we can give ourselves permission to engage in enjoyable and playful activities.

Our ability to engage in play is significant: play is what we use as children to make sense of the world, learn how to be with others, develop imagination and empathy. As adults, our ability to play and be creative supports how resilient we are (humour being an intrinsic part of playfulness). Participation in arts-based activities at work provides a playful way to (re-)connect with others and build the support networks that have often disappeared. Research recently completed with employees from four health and care organisations indicated that their participation in art therapy-based groups had some positive impact not only on their own experience of work-related stress but on their views of other colleagues (Huet & Holttum, 2016). The arts have a profound relational quality and are of our best tools to improve our levels of resilience, counter isolation and lessen conflict within the workplace. Best of all, work-based participation in the arts often becomes a personal passion, with many employees making time in their own lives for it.


Huet, V., & Holttum, S. (2016). Art therapy-based groups for work-related stress with staff in health and social care: An exploratory study. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 50, 46-57.

This piece was published originally by The London Arts in Health Forum: LAHF

Living in a big city, I often take for granted how easy it is to access amazing resources. Concerts, plays, exhibitions are there to be enjoyed as often as I wish. Over the course of my career, whenever I wanted to learn something new, accessibility to trainings of my choice was never in doubt. However, this is not the case for everyone: depending on where you live, access to trainings is not that easy, especially for small professions like mine.  Although art therapy is well established in some countries including the UK and the USA, many people find it difficult to access introductory and professional trainings.  Internationally, this is even more of an issue:  art therapy in many countries is still relatively unknown and often, there are no established trainings or professional networks. However, I am aware of a worldwide growing interest in art therapy: often, people discover this by themselves and many have been using art therapeutically in their own health, social and educational work. Witnessing its transformative impact on people facing difficult life issues, they have become passionate about this approach and have wanted to learn more, but have been unable to access formal trainings.

The idea to do something about this came to me and my colleague, Lucien Paul Stanfield as far back as 2012.  We wanted to create accessible online quality trainings using all the wealth of experience we have built in the UK over the past fifty years which would be relevant to the different cultural contexts within which people live.  A few years later (which included the completion of my PhD), we are very excited to be launching our first two courses, the art therapy introduction and foundation courses.

Having taught both for many years in workshop settings, I am aware that an experiential group experience is usually an important component of an art therapy Foundation training.  Although we cannot provide this as part of an online training, we have included as many art-based exercises as possible to enrich the learning experience. Importantly, we also offer an opportunity to stay connected so that if they wish, our Foundation alumni can stay connected and learn more through webinars and newsletters.  To this end, we will be developing the role of our International Faculty members, all trained and experienced art therapy specialists in different practice areas. When one feels passionate about art therapy, there is nothing more exciting than exchanging views and ideas with others who feel the same way about it.  Through the Oxford College of Arts and Therapies, we aim to share our passion for art and therapy worldwide.

With best wishes,