Art therapists have traditionally been employed in large psychiatric hospitals where they have often worked with groups of in-patients on acute admissions as well as long-stay wards. They have tended to run so-called ‘open groups’, which consist of a studio-type room into which patients may wander at various times of day, sometimes painting, sometimes not. Alternatively, ‘projective art groups’ may be held, where one-off themes are set by whoever happens to be running the group. Often this is not a qualified art or group therapist. In either case, little attention is paid to the dynamics of the group.
Conducting groups in acute admissions wards has been seen by most workers as difficult, given that the patient population changes frequently and patients are very disturbed and often heavily medicated. Yalom, in Inpatient Group Psychotherapy (1983) points out that workers are generally only familiar with the long-term model of groups (based on groups in private practice or out-patient groups consisting of well-functioning individuals). Currently, there is no coherent, commonly accepted method for running in-patient groups so there is often confusion and ineffective conducting, whereas it would be possible, by adapting the model, to run short-term interactive groups.
Such groups as there are in acute wards are often run by non-trained personnel. There is competition for time and the groups are not taken very seriously. Sometimes they are set up without full knowledge and permission from the ward administration and this can lead to tension and even sabotage. In my experience, art therapy groups are no exception and art therapists have reported being frustrated by the ever-changing population in the ‘open’ groups which they have felt obliged to run.
Yalom’s research on the effects of groups run on three different wards in different institutions revealed, not surprisingly, that the more highly the group is valued by all the staff, the more effective it is for the patients. If a group is run by non-trained staff and seen to be less important than other activities on the ward, patients will feel it is not worth making a commitment. What usually happens in such groups is that they are held irregularly,