Using creative interventions to support young people's mental health

screenshot of social media post which reads: "Finished my groups today with blue hands, covered in glitter & smelling of lemon cake. Must be aromadough day! #Selfsooth #Sensory #Mindful"

We’ve been delivering Mind and Body for almost a year now. It’s been a great success. The programme helps young people to open up about their emotional wellbeing and find positive ways to cope with their problems. We do this in a variety of ways, from cognitive behavioural skill sessions, to communication tasks and mindfulness practice, but it’s the Aromadough session that really gets people talking.

I discovered Aromadough – a home-made, scented playdough – while working in a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) inpatient unit. The service users were supported with individual therapy, and medication in some cases, but it was often in the creative, hands-on sessions that something magical happened. A young person who had been acutely suicidal and painfully withdrawn was now smiling and making eye-contact across the mixing bowl. A service user who had been unable to communicate with others due to crippling social anxiety would begin to indicate their preferences about food colouring. Don’t get me wrong, this was the culmination of weeks or months of multi-disciplinary teamwork, but the breakthroughs made in those sessions formed a crucial part of each young person’s armour against the complicated world of mental illness.

It’s no longer news that access to mental health provision for young people in this country is inadequate to the point of crisis. Waiting lists are growing, thresholds are getting higher and programmes are being cut. All the while, reports are showing decreases in self-esteem, body confidence and happiness, alongside rises in self-harming behaviours and referrals to mental health services. Here are just some of the headlines from a survey of 1500 young people we did in Kent:

  • Over 1/3 stated they had thought about hurting themselves
  • 87% thought that either many or most people their age self-harm
  • 38% don’t feel safe at school
  • 19% have a close friend who is currently self-harming

The need for intervention is staggering, so we’re enormously grateful to have secured the funding to deliver Mind and Body in Kent, Cornwall and Lancashire. Young people with thoughts of self-harm need practical, accessible tools that everyone can use. Believe it or not, one of these tools is colourful, smelly playdough.

Think of it this way, in life’s most difficult moments we experience feelings that overwhelm logic and reasoning. From blood-boiling rage to the depths of despair, the intensity of these emotions requires a different approach: the soothing or alerting of the senses. For some people that may be the sensation of being held, the relief of sobbing (or screaming), or the comfort and safety of their own bed. For others, it’s self-harm. For some self-harmers, those overwhelming moments are frequent, perhaps even constant. Part of the Mind and Body programme is about finding things that young people can use to self-soothe without causing harm to themselves, or at least reducing that risk. These techniques are by no means a replacement for other forms of intervention, but complement them, and can be used while waiting for access to appropriate treatment.

Home-made sensory items like Aromadough can help in a number of ways. If a young person is beginning to feel overwhelmed, then focusing solely on creating the item can be enough of a distraction, or a pause, to allow the difficult thoughts or feelings to pass. Creating a sensory item allows the young person to remain in the present moment: What colours do they like? What smells do they find calming? What does the dough feel like?

Importantly, this must be an individual process. Just as the underlying motivations and reasons for self-harming are entirely individual, the alternatives put in place must also be. Gone are the days of suggesting all self-injurers switch to pinging elastic bands around their wrists. Self-soothing is a much more personal and subjective experience.

Mind and Body is delivered by experienced professionals to teach young people the skills they need to self-manage. Engaging in creative alternatives to self-harm can be helpful, especially when tailored with the individual in mind. If you find you are a witness to creative engagement, I’d like to invite you to pause and consider that this may be of great importance. Whether in a school environment, the workplace, or beyond, the activity or piece of expression in front of you is possibly a person’s coping strategy, or even lifeline. My work in mental health has taught me many life lessons. Perhaps my favourite: you should never underestimate the power of glitter.


Chloe Still is an Advanced Practitioner for Mind and Body. Follow her on Twitter: @mabsmermaid

Close up photograph of red, gold & green glitter