Mental Health Self Portrait

I recently inherited a coping skills group for adults that suffer from mental illness. The group has been formed of individuals that have been recently diagnosed. They are struggling with accepting how their symptoms impair their daily functioning and how their diagnosis influences their self-perception.


I have found the verbal processing of emotion has been helpful, but many are resistant to engage due to their defense mechanisms. A strategy that I have found to be effective in both providing a comfortable space to let their guard down and express their emotions is through artwork.

Art Therapy

This week, my clients were tasked to sketch a picture of their old and new selves. They were instructed to fold a piece of paper in half to draw an empty face in the center of the page. On the left side of the paper inside the face, using crayons, oil pastels, or markers they were to draw who they were before they were diagnosed with their illness. On the right side of the face, they were tasked to draw who they currently are or who they want to be.




As with all my art activities, once the instructions are provided and a brief moment of deep breathing is completed as a group, the activity is practiced in silence with soft relaxing music playing in the background. This provides an opportunity to practice mindfulness, focusing on the present moment, non judgmentally.

Therapeutic Discussion

Once the art activity was completed, the group shared what the process was like for them. There were diverse responses that ranged from relaxing to disturbing. Once their feelings were validated, each person shared their project to include what lessons they were taking away regarding their mental health journey, as well as from the exercise.




Process Questions


  • What was this experience like for you?
  • What emotions surfaced? How do you know, (i.e. your body’s sensations, your thoughts)?
  • What were you thinking when you drew your old self?
  • What did you notice about yourself?
  • Was this easy or difficult? How did you tolerate it?
  • What were you thinking when you drew your present self/future self?
  • What were your reasons for choosing one over the other?
  • What did you notice about yourself when you were drawing?
  • What do you think about yourself now?
  • When you hear other people sharing their experiences, how does this influence how you think about yourself?
  • What are you planning on doing with the drawing?
  • How can you honor both your old self and new self with purpose and pride?, (i.e. helpful self-talk, forgiveness, radical acceptance, continuing to seek answers/help)?
  • What advice would you give your old/current/future self?

*An additional way of using this activity is by assigning participants to draw on the left side of the face what they hide from others about who they are or how they feel on the inside. On the right of the face, have them draw what they want others to see.

How Can I Help You Today?

Teaching Needs Identification

Being aware of your needs and educating those around you what they are is not easy. Many have learned growing up that their feelings and needs are not important. When ignored for too long, feelings and needs become difficult to recognize and negative emotions and acting out behavior eventually develop.

                                                                                                                                Use Your Words

speak-238488_960_720Self awareness of one’s own feelings and needs are critical for problem solving, communication, and healing. For example, when one is mindful they are feeling scared and their need is to be reassured, the person will be more effective in letting others know how to help them feel better. Having the language to say, “I am scared, I need your reassurance” also guarantees a higher likelihood of having one’s needs met by a trusted support than being silent and withdrawing.

Individual Therapy Needs Menu

In an effort to ensure my client’s needs are being met in therapy, and to keep the therapeutic session in a purposeful direction, I follow my initial question of how they have been feeling with the inquiry of what their needs are for the day’s session. I selfishly use the therapy needs menu as a guide for my interventions and will reference their need throughout the discussion ensuring we are both on track to addressing their need.

Therapy Needs

Group Therapy Needs

My favorite use of the therapy needs menu is in group therapy. At the beginning of every group, I check in with each client and ask them to briefly share what they are thinking, feeling, and what their group needs are.

Therapy Needs1Many will share one need and some share all the needs on the page. Their announcement provides the opportunity for the client to identify and educate everyone what their need is this day. It also facilitates perspective taking and group problem solving, as group members tend to work together prioritizing the subsequent discussions.

Posting the menu of individual and group therapy needs in my office space provides a helpful visual prompt for both of us. Overall, my goals are to have my clients disclose their feelings and their needs to address and to eventually generalize this practice with their trusted supports.

As in life, not all sessions end with one’s needs being met. It will be helpful to end each conversation with the inquiry if they had been met. Should my clients remain to have an unmet need, I encourage ongoing self-care to address their need throughout the week, as well as the plan to revisit their need at the next session.