Healing Trauma with Expressive Arts Therapy

Emily Campbell-Burdett - Student Story

With a background in the arts, including a BA in Fine Art Sculpture, Emily Campbell-Burdett was no stranger to the art making process. However since graduating from the Vancouver School of Expressive Arts Therapy and working as a School Art Therapist in the North West Territories, she’s discovered a deeper understanding of herself, her art and the art making process.

 Emily Campbell-Burdett, Expressive Arts Therapist

Emily Campbell-Burdett, Expressive Arts Therapist

“The nature of expressive arts is that it is forever evolving, I’m constantly inspired. The person I’m working with creates what’s happening that day and I can never know or predict what is going to happen,” Emily said.

Emily works for the government of the North West Territories in the Chief Jimmy Bruneau Regional High School in a small community of only a few thousand people.

“Before I came to Expressive Arts, I wanted to be able to go into communities, facilitate art projects and to work on relationships, communication, collaboration and what it means to work as a team. I realised the other day that I’ve begun doing what I envisioned, although the vision has altered as my experience deepens. It feels like a whirlwind,” Emily said.

After graduating from the Vancouver School of Expressive Arts Therapy, Emily went straight into a Masters of Expressive Arts Therapy at the European Graduate School in Switzerland. A few days after completing her first year of study, she was offered the job in the North West Territories and had one week to fly back, pack up her life in Vancouver and make the move. Emily said “At the time I didn’t have much experience but there was this faith that what I had learned in Heather Dawson’s program had given me to tools to do this job.”

Emily says there is a lot of support needed in the community due to the impact of inter-generational trauma, ongoing loss from a young age and the lack of space for healing. She says oftentimes she ends up in the role of a counsellor and crisis intervention worker as well as an art therapist.

“I’m by no means specialized in these areas but from Expressive Arts Therapy I’ve learned tools and exercises to help people be present, in their body and out of their minds. To be able to function in these traumatic moments has been so valuable, especially with students who self-harm, have suicidal ideation or are going through an episode of psychosis,” Emily said.

The community Emily works in was the first self-governed First Nations community under the Tlicho Land Claims and Self Government Agreement.

“What I see about the Tlicho traditions is that they live and learn off the land. They were outside all the time and integrated with nature so the transition to a world of technology and a classroom setting is counter intuitive for most kids.”

Emily also explained that trauma has huge impacts on the brain and body affecting children’s ability to concentrate and self regulate. “It’s really challenging for kids to sit in the unnatural learning environment of a classroom and work on subject matter that is not designed for this demographic.”

Emily says that without this knowledge, misconceptions are often made about the value of her work. “There is a misunderstandings that if there isn’t an almost immediate indication that the therapy is improving behaviour, that it isn’t working. However, it’s important to recognize that these kids are always in a state of fight or flight and it’s a long journey to work through trauma occurring from a young age.”

Emily’s favourite part of her work is the moment in a session when the client experiences themselves as creative and full of imagination, allowing play to trickle into their life. “It’s the unique way the art making process allows for a safe space to experience vulnerability and connection with other human beings. When you bring elements of creativity and play into life they become tools to enable us to function better within ourselves and the world. I feel so blessed and grateful to be able to work with others in this way.”

 A photo by Emily Campbell-Burdett taken from her new home in the North West Territories.

A photo by Emily Campbell-Burdett taken from her new home in the North West Territories.