Not many people understand the role and function of a forensic mental health hospital. The 135-bed Forensic Hospital, which is operated by the Justice Health & Forensic Mental Health Network, is the only high secure forensic hospital in NSW. It provides specialist care to people who have been in contact with the criminal justice system and forensic mental health including those found not guilty of a crime by reason of mental illness, those unfit to plead, or those at high risk of offending or reoffending in the community.
Art therapist Oleen George is among the allied health staff of the Forensic Hospital, a highly dedicated team that also includes occupational therapists, diversional therapists, psychologists, social workers, welfare workers, allied health assistants, a chaplain and a recreational officer.
“The people you treat are individuals,” Oleen says. She recognises that for any effective therapeutic work to take place, a balance between risk assessment, clinical judgement and therapeutic need is required for effective outcomes, while ensuring safety for patients and staff. Supporting each patient through the rehabilitation programs available in the Forensic Hospital aids their recovery pathway which leads them to referrals to less restrictive settings, often medium secure hospitals within the state’s Forensic Mental Health Network.
As an art therapist, Oleen uses visual art making as a therapeutic tool to improve an individual’s social and emotional wellbeing. It is a recognised form of psychotherapy, although not a very well-known one in Australia. It’s more established in the US and UK, and Oleen is grateful to have the opportunity to work as an art therapist in NSW.
“I’ve got a job that’s one in a million,” she acknowledges.
On an average day, Oleen will start work with a handover from staff who worked the previous shift; she’ll often meet with clinical colleagues for a multidisciplinary review of patients in their care; and then will lead a group art therapy session in one of the three units she works across.
In the sessions, participants are able to choose their art making materials and methods which balances the need for security and therapeutic engagement. Everything from paints to pottery is available. Sometimes Oleen requests participants focus on a theme in their art, to aid them in identifying and reflecting on an emotion apparent in the art work, or the way the patient has related to the making of the image or art piece.
“Art therapists are trained psychodynamically. We’re trying to get to the root; the whole person. We’re a source of positive reinforcement and it’s tangible for the patient.”
For Oleen, being able to work in a consistently therapeutic manner comes from being passionate about art therapy and knowing its benefits for individuals, such as allowing creative expression, becoming flexible in approach, exploring emotion regulation and developing self-reflection. What strengthens the work is having access to clinical supervision which Oleen says “I can’t advocate for enough”.
At the end of the day, Oleen is able to reflect on her work and the marked difference observed within individuals throughout their rehabilitation.
“Our patients are brought from a world where they are unable to clearly communicate, to one where they are able to engage with others as they progress through their recovery pathway,” she says.