Youngsters with mental health problems are finding a way to express themselves through art.

The freedom of expression has become a way to communicate and a source of therapy.

The youngsters’ work has now been brought together in an exhibition which is on show at Colchester Hospital.

It is not only stunning but gives an insight into their thoughts and feelings.

Putting feelings into words can be difficult for anyone, especially when those feelings seem unnatural or confusing.

Finding the courage to confide in a stranger about emotions is an even bigger challenge, especially for young people.

But hand them a pen or a slab of clay and, in time, they will open up.

A new exhibition at the St Aubyn Centre, a mental health facility for 13 to 18-year-olds in Colchester, is evidence of how art therapy has benefitted inpatients facing all kinds of mental battles.

It is important to stress art is not used to diagnose patients, but as a medium for people address emotional issues which may be distressing.

Amy Wilesmith, a teacher at the centre, leads therapeutic art groups and craft sessions.


She studied art at degree level before joining the St Aubyn Centre and is an art therapist with the Kids Inspire charity.

She said: “I ended up as a mainstream school art teacher but it was a bit too regimented.

I wanted to work with young people in a creative way, but in a way that meets their emotional needs.

She trained the University of London, Goldsmiths College in 2014 and went on to teach at the St Aubyn Centre, running art groups and leading on GCSE and A-Level tuition.

She said: “The art groups are about exploring your inner world.

"We got lottery funding last year so professional artists came in and taught workshops. There is no judgement here."

Inpatients at the centre are dealing with self-harm, suicide, trauma, eating disorders, depression and anxiety.

The art workshops are a unique way for them to build relationships and feel valued by others.

Amy said: “Art is an extension of ourselves and being able to present something personal and have it shared and valued is really important.

“It can be quite metaphorical and abstract. A lot of people choose to keep their artwork after they have left.

“I saw a need for young people to have creative opportunities to express themselves in a contained and non-threatening way.”

Art therapy is not a lesson and the patient does not need to have any experience to benefit from it.


Claire Gillen, from Colchester, is also a former mainstream school art teacher.

She taught a charcoal workshop at the St Aubyn Centre.

She said: "The assumptions with mental health are a big thing. People think all teenagers feel like this as a part of growing up.

We don’t diagnose, we are more to do with psychotherapy and it uses art as a primary mode of expression

Schools can offer referrals to art therapy and it is hoped mental health provision will be a part of future Ofsted inspection criteria.

Mrs Gillen supports children with physical disabilities or terminal illness as well as emotional problems.

It is not just for children as adults and elderly patients also benefit.

She said: “We can work in groups or individually. I mostly work with individuals as they need that safe space.

“They don’t have to be an amazing artist and we are not psychiatrists.

“We learn to look at people’s past experiences, family dynamics and unconscious processes and art allows those to evolve.

“You can’t be too analytical about an image, we are there to build a relationship that is trusting.”


One of her main drivers to move into art therapy was having bereavement counselling with St Helena Hospice.

She now helps a large number of young people through bereavement.

She said: “It can be intimidating when people are faced with art materials so I will introduce materials, like clay, and show how they work.

Some people don’t like talking, especially young people, but when you get people to just fiddle with clay you develop that therapeutic relationship and they become safe

“We reflect on what they have made, it helps them find what they need.”

It is becoming more evident in schools children are using art as a way to communicate as opening up to teachers seems unimaginable.

Raising awareness of art therapy will be key in providing young people with an alternative way to speak out.

Claire said: “When I was working in a school, I could see mental health was coming out through the artwork and I found it really interesting.

“It was a form of communication and I just wanted to take it a step further.

It is not a fix, but internal feelings are made external through art

A group of teenage inpatients from the St Aubyn Centre have created artworks to be exhibited in a gallery at Colchester Hospital.

The young people have all attended a therapeutic art group during their admissions and have each produced images to reflect their own personalities and experiences.

The small exhibition entitled No Idea runs until July 21 at the Colne Gallery within the hospital and is open to members of the public at any time.

  • Experienced artists are needed for workshops. Call the St Aubyn Centre on 01206 334600 to find out more.