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How Art Helps My Students in New Orleans Deal with Their PTSD

What do you when you're teaching five-year-olds who have been through severe trauma? One thing that helps, it turns out, is handing them a set of pastels.

I came to New Orleans in 2008 and worked for a year in a public high school as a science teacher. My students knew death intimately. On dress-down days, they came to school in white T-shirts with iron-on transfer pictures of their former classmates' faces and words like, "Rest In Peace" or "In Loving Memory." At the time, New Orleans had the highest murder rate in the country. While I arrived in the city understanding that fact as a statistic, my students understood it as a way of life. Hurricane Katrina had hit just three years prior. Sometimes the weather stormed, and kids fell to their knees, putting their cheeks against the ground to sob; the memory was too heavy, and too recent.

That school closed the next year and I found a job at a new charter school with a rosy reputation and brand new paint. I taught first grade. The charter school had more resources than the high school: Each classroom was outfitted with a fancy electronic chalkboard, whole class sets of colorful multi-part curricula, and a computer for every student. The rules were stricter and the staff stayed after school later. But the kids, even at seven years old, were still visibly suffering. There was a special room set aside for students who had meltdowns. The room had no furniture or carpet, because children regularly threw desks or chairs or ripped carpet off the ground. Once I saw an angry, tear-faced six-year-old turn over a bookshelf three times his height in the school library.

Related: New Orleans Is Tired of Talking About Hurricane Katrina

In 2012, the Institute for Women and Ethnic Studies in New Orleans reported that at least a third of the children in New Orleans showed symptoms of PTSD and depression. That's a percentage that exceeded the national average so profoundly that mental health workers didn't even know how to make sense of it.

Children under the age of ten are generally less likely to develop PTSD than adults. But children whose mothers have experienced PTSD are significantly more at risk than their counterparts. And the historic storm that hit in 2005 made a lot of New Orleanians vulnerable to the condition.

Of those who survived Hurricane Katrina, 33 percent show symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

With Hurricane Katrina came more damage than anyone could have imagined. There was the physical damage from the storm, but there were other forms of damage too. Those who left were forced onto buses and herded to Dallas or Houston. They didn't know when they'd be allowed to go home. They were forced to abandon their lives. Those who stayed might have ended up at a makeshift refugee camp set up in the Superdome, where people reported being stabbed and raped and forced to eat off the ground.

It's important to note that not everyone who experiences major trauma will suffer from PTSD. Of those who survived Hurricane Katrina, 33 percent show symptoms. It's an unusually high percentage, even for a population that's suffered a big trauma.

Read: The Lower Ninth Ward, Ten Years After Katrina

I know a little about trauma, because I was raped by a stranger in 2004. I didn't report it, but I did mentally revisit it, constantly. I revisited it so much, in fact, that I was practically unsurprised when I was raped again by a non-stranger a few months later. I didn't report that, either; but I did begin to feel sharp pangs of paranoia afterwards.

Trauma is all about details. Trauma renders itself in certain songs, in the quality of the air against the sky, in colors of socks, in flavors of alcohol. When the human brain encounters a trauma, it makes quick decisions about what to remember, and it often remembers otherwise mundane details: the timbre of birdsong, or the specific shake of a tree's shoulders. Sometimes the brain gets kind of obsessive about trauma. The rhythms of the brain catalog the trauma as anxiety, and the anxiety is ceaseless, and doctors call this post-traumatic stress disorder.

Clinically speaking, PTSD is an anxiety disorder that develops when a person experiences something terrifying. The terrifying thing—maybe it was being the victim of violent crime, or witnessing one; maybe it was surviving a natural disaster or a war—affects the person's brain chemistry. Formerly calm people can grow skittish. They might be plagued by nightmares and flashbacks; they experience fear in ordinary situations, and act out accordingly.

My PTSD followed the textbook definition exactly. I stopped sleeping. I had flashbacks all the time; I started skipping classes because I didn't want to experience a flashback at school. Once, during a flashback, I remember crawling under a metal desk in the student center and carving the insides of my wrists with a broken wire to keep myself from screaming. The distance of time makes it obvious to me now that I would have benefited immensely from some mental health services, but I was stubborn then. I denied that I suffered from PTSD or depression, and let panic attacks and depressive lows dictate my life. To be fair, this response is typical of many PTSD sufferers.

I was, however, particularly drawn to other peoples' trauma. That's pretty typical, too: People who are suffering seek out others who are suffering for plenty of reasons. Mostly, people want to feel that they are not alone. Hence Alcoholics Anonymous, and group therapy.

In my third year of teaching, I had a student in my class whom I will call Eva. Eva said almost nothing, but was nevertheless ostentatiously disruptive. Once she threw a fish tank off the shelf after she found out that we would be eating bagged lunch in our classroom rather than go to the cafeteria because of an assembly. Another time, she knocked over four desks before stabbing another student in the face with a pair of scissors. She was five years old.

The school psychologist told me that Eva had definitely gone through some major trauma, although she wouldn't tell me what it was. Over the years, I learned the specifics of Eva's trauma, and like the school psychologist, I hesitate to talk about it, because it is not mine to talk about. I will say that Eva had witnessed extreme violence at a very young age, which she remembered vividly; she was also the survivor of sexual abuse, which she remembered in fragments.

Experiencing major trauma like that can have a profound psychological effect on anyone. A child with developing brain chemicals is especially susceptible to complications. Human brains do a good job of recognizing danger and providing the adrenaline necessary to elicit a fight-or-flight response when confronted with threats. But when confronted with abnormally large threats repeatedly at a young age, the brain's response mechanisms can get confused and mis-wired. In short, the emergency reaction system can get turned on permanently.

I wouldn't admit this to anyone at the time, but I felt a connection to Eva because her meltdowns looked very similar to my own. By the end of an episode, she'd be shaking in the corner of some small space, sobbing and wordless, her face hot and buried into her arm. In those moments, she'd let me hold her and stroke her hair while she found her breath. I looked down at her little head and climbed back into moments when I'd cried like that, feeling broken and alone. There was a selfishness to all of this, but also the warm conceit that misery must love company.

The point of painting was to avoid being sucked underneath the turbulent wave of anxiety; to ride it out until it passed.

Most days, Eva stayed after school because her mother worked two jobs and couldn't pick her up on time. I didn't mind; Eva was less volatile when the other kids weren't around, and she found something comforting in reorganizing the books in the classroom library. One afternoon, after a particularly stressful day at school, I sat at my desk drawing to calm myself down. There was a set of oil pastels stashed in my desk, and I drew swirls and circles to let my mind relax.

I had started painting after my assault. I couldn't push the flashbacks away and late at night, unable to fall asleep, painting became my outlet for busying my hands and keeping my mind at bay. The point was never to be an artist. The point was to pass the time. The point was to avoid being sucked underneath the turbulent wave of anxiety; to ride it out until it passed.

Eva must have noticed that I wasn't tapping at my computer like I normally do after school, and she took an interest in my art-making. At this point in our relationship, Eva hadn't really spoken to me. She had answered a few of my questions at the prompting of her mother at a parent-teacher meeting once, but that was it. But she was clearly curious. I decided to take a risk and raise a conversation.

"These are oil pastels," I offered. "They're amazing. They're like paint in a stick. Do you want to try one?" I rolled a pink pastel toward Eva. She picked it up and gently scribbled on a piece of computer paper. "No, no. You have to push HARD," I said. "You want the color to really SHOUT." Eva pushed hard. The color shouted. She looked pleased. "If you think that's cool," I said, "Try coloring with that pastel on black paper. Normally you can't see anything that you put on black paper, but bright pastels color right on top of it." I pulled out a piece of black construction paper and put it in front of Eva. She drew a heart on the paper with the pink pastel.

Then she said, "Cool."

Hurricane Katrina wrought insurmountable psychological trauma across the city. No one denies it. Add to these continuing repercussions the high rates of violence, murder, and illness, and you are left with a city that plainly and obviously needs time and space and resources to heal. There should be no surprise that rates of PTSD and depression among the people of New Orleans are so spectacularly high. But it didn't stop the government from enacting massive cuts to mental health services, hospice care, and psychiatric treatment in 2012.

The cuts decimated what was already a pretty flimsy mental health system in the metropolitan area of New Orleans. According to an article in the Gambit, the Interim LSU Public Hospital (ILH), which supplied the only inpatient mental health provider in New Orleans proper, was reduced to 15 emergency mental health beds. They were forced to lay off staff, prolonging recovery time for trauma patients and further pushing the already-stretched ILH mental health emergency facility to capacity.

Due to these cuts, as well as cuts made by individual charter schools, mental health was not prioritized at the school level either. The school I worked at was unable to renew the contract for the school psychologist who helped me work with Eva, and to this day, she has not been replaced.

I am not trained in art therapy. Art therapy has never been administrated to me by a professional. I don't know statistics about art therapy. The American Therapy Association defines art therapy as "a form of psychotherapy involving the encouragement of free self-expression through painting, drawing, or modeling, used as a remedial activity or an aid to diagnosis." That's all well and good. The thing I understand to be true is that art is a language all humans can speak, and for this reason, art contains enormous capacity for healing.

The morning after Eva and I painted together, I left a set of pastels on her desk. I noticed her scribbling with them on her homework folder during a math lesson, when ordinarily she liked to crouch inside the bookcase and tear up pieces of paper. At the end of the week, Eva approached me during recess and asked if I would get her a fresh set. Eva had never communicated with me in a full sentence before; this one even included the word please. I got her a 24-pack of oil pastels at the art supply store after school that day.

One day, about a month later, Eva came to school a little early. She came into my classroom and produced a black piece of paper with irregular red streaks across it, and a wiry tangle of lines concentrated in the middle. It looked electrical and mighty; notably intentional-looking for what seemed to be a scribble constructed by a five-year-old. She put the picture on my desk and said, "This is what it feels like when I'm mad. This is what it feels like all the time."

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I didn't begin to confront my own PTSD until well after I'd moved to New Orleans. There were days at school when I would experience flashbacks while teaching, and I'd start crying in front of my students. I was embarrassed and felt like I might lose my job, so I sought out a good therapist. My therapist didn't specifically recommend painting, but she did want me to find activities that calmed me down, and painting was really all I could think of. I started making little portraits in watercolor to help myself breathe. I noticed my joints relax the moment my brush hit the paper.

There was no way for her to explain her trauma in language. She needed to show it.

This was a physical reaction that I witnessed in Eva, too: She softened in the shoulders and curved like clay over her work. But whereas I painted arbitrarily, to soothe my mind and quell rising tides of panic, Eva used her art to express what she was feeling. When she showed me the red scribble and told me that it represented her anger, a lightbulb went off for me. There are no words for this. There was no way for her to explain this in language. She needed to show it.

Art became Eva's primary mode of communication. She drew constantly, and I gradually was able to tell if she was mad (red scribbles), sad (purple blobs), calm (blue swirls), or bored (all the colors, all the shapes, all over the paper). Over time, she started talking to me after school while she drew. She also started sitting at her desk during regular classroom lessons, drawing on her worksheets with profound focus. When the next parent-teacher conference came around, Eva's mom told me that Eva had covered her bedroom walls in her own pastel art. I told Eva's mom that for the first time all year, Eva had taken—and passed—a math test.

Eva figured all this out on her own. At five, she recognized the discomfort of her own trauma enough to do something to feel better. She looked her own monsters in their terrifying faces, and she drew red scribbles around them.

Related: Living with My Post-Katrina Survivor's Guilt

Since Eva showed me how abstract art can alleviate this difficult business of translating trauma, I've worked with hundreds of students in the exact same capacity as a push-in teacher. I work with children who show symptoms of PTSD and depression (or, simply, children who regularly exhibit disruptive classroom behaviors), and I basically copy the curriculum Eva made up. I have them draw what they are feeling. That's pretty much all there is to it.

Here is what I've noticed: Children who have experienced trauma want to express what they're feeling, but they don't always know how. Emotions are very complicated, and no one ever wants to be thought of as dysfunctional, or broken, or sick. It's not like every child who has emotional difficulties will pick up a set of pastels and naturally communicate her deepest fears and darkest feelings—but more children are willing to go there than you might imagine. Especially when you use pastels. Pastels are amazing.

The important takeaway isn't really about the art, or even about the trauma. It's about the acknowledgement. There is a deep human need to grant ourselves our suffering; to know that we all suffer, and that pain is important. Maybe there aren't always words to sculpt the difficulty around; and if the words aren't there, you simply have to find another way.

Follow Sophie Lucido Johnson on Twitter.