Elizabeth Stone Matho is an American psychotherapist and art therapist, psychoanalytically trained, with a private practice in Grenoble. She has written on the use of art and creativity as therapy for children and sufferers of medical illness and trauma. Grenoble Life wanted to learn more …
Grenoble Life: You have had a private practice in Grenoble since 2003. Was it difficult to establish yourself professionally in France having started your career in the US?
Elizabeth Stone Matho: Yes, what was difficult for me was that I was unknown professionally here, since my psychotherapy training was in the US, so I began my practice without a professional réseau. That is, I began without knowing a network of colleagues to provide referrals to my practice. Fortunately, the Working Women’s Networking Group (WWNG) was born at the same time as I opened my practice. Meetings were held in my office, so women got to know me and began to call upon me for professional help, or help for their children, when they needed it.
I was also known in Open House, a Grenoble-based association dedicated to the needs and interests of the English speaking community, primarily expatriates. At the same time, a French association, AGARO (Association Grenobloise d’Aide à la Recherche en Oncologie), was looking to hire an art therapist for several hours a week to work with adult cancer patients at the CHU Grenoble. All this helped me to start my practice in psychotherapy and in art therapy. Then it grew gradually by word of mouth.
GL: Can you tell me what sort of population you would work with?
ESM: I work with both adults and children, in individual psychotherapy or couples’ therapy for a wide range of difficulties. Most adults I see come for psychotherapy, but some do seek art therapy. Children are usually seen in art therapy or play therapy and adolescents are seen in either psychotherapy or art therapy, depending upon their preference.
The kinds of difficulties that people come to see me for include: anxiety and depression, life crises including divorce, illness and loss, self-destructive patterns, stress, trauma, career decisions, adaptation to life in a new country, parenting consultation, creative blocks, eating disorders, parenting issues, chronic feelings of emptiness or loneliness and life-disrupting symptoms associated with physical or sexual abuse.
GL: Are there any differences concerning public and medical attitudes towards psychotherapy and psychoanalysis between France and the US?
ESM: Yes, I think that the need to seek psychotherapy has gradually become a normal part of the self-discovery process in the US and other countries, whereas in France, many people still attach a certain stigma to the idea of being in therapy. With greater acceptance of life’s difficulties as part of the normal process of living comes the understanding that, with the proper help, improvement can be envisioned.
According to my understanding, psychotherapy practiced by non-medical professionals is not well accepted by the French medical establishment. While this was also the case in the US some years back, the field of practicing non-medical psychotherapists has grown enormously and I think that now we are far beyond that perspective. To give you an example, formerly psychoanalytic institutes restricted candidates exclusively to psychiatrists (medically trained), and then they let in some PhD psychologists. That has since changed, permitting other qualified clinicians to obtain excellent training and further their competencies.
GL: Is your practice bilingual?
ESM: Yes, I do have a bilingual practice. I might add that it’s always an honor for me when French people choose to come to therapy with me, as so often people seek treatment with someone of their own native language and culture. And of course, it’s so important for English-speaking people to be able to express their deepest concerns in their own language to feel understood both from the standpoint of their own culture, and in terms of the expatriate cultural context of their present lives.
GL: You are a specialist in art therapy too, what media do your patients work in and how do you facilitate this?
ESM: I offer a variety of media that permit a wide range of expression, which can be just a few scratches on a paper to imagery that is far more elaborate. Materials include: gouache, clay, pastels, oil crayons, to name some of the basics. No previous art background is necessary, nor is particular talent. I believe that everybody has a story to tell and often that story can be told through imagery or through shapes and lines formed by the sensuous color and textures of the art media. Art materials used therapeutically elicit experimentation and the process of play. When working with children, I also have available other traditional materials such as puppets, blocks, etc.
Even those children who don’t “like” to draw find other ways in engaging in a creative process that becomes therapeutic in art therapy. Children tend to communicate naturally through imagery and play, so art therapy is particularly suitable and is a less stressful form of therapy for them than verbal psychotherapy. Nevertheless, they tend to become comfortable sharing their feelings through metaphor, symbolism and even direct conversation. Adults who have difficulty verbalizing feelings or experiences, such as in the case of trauma or bereavement, benefit from the sensory contact with the media, which often permits them to express themselves in a way that they might not otherwise have been able to do. The creative/therapeutic process involved helps people get in touch with their needs, even for people who would not ordinarily think of themselves as “creative.”
I have done quite a lot of work in the past with adult psychiatric patients who feel more comfortable in an atmosphere where they aren’t pressured to “talk” about themselves. In other words, using art media helps many people engage in therapy at their own rhythm. I think that my background as an art therapist has also informed my approach to psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in paying particular attention to the therapeutic rhythm necessary for each person, whether that person is verbally at ease or less so.
GL: When and how did you come to work in this field?
ESM: I’ve worked in this field for about 30 years, first in New York, where I grew up, studied and also practiced. My undergraduate work was in art, art history and philosophy but I was always drawn to psychology. I heard of art therapy while I was getting a masters’ in a hybrid field called Interrelation of the Arts, in the 70s, at New York University. Fortunately, my graduate program allowed me to craft my own course of studies to a great extent, and I already had experience working with children of all ages. I had been particularly interested in child development, and the development of children’s creativity, how drawing and the expression of fantasy life comes about through art and through dramatic play. Since art therapy was a new field at the time, it was difficult to find enough courses, so I began to take courses and attend workshops and conferences wherever I could find them, all over New York and elsewhere. Of course, I took psychology courses as well.
Then, a pioneering art therapist named Edith Kramer came to teach at NYU, where I was already enrolled as a masters’ degree candidate. She asked me to work with her at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx, in child psychiatry. We worked together for several years and when she retired, she resigned her position to me. I had already been working with pre-schoolers and was fascinated with child development, creativity and what can interfere with it psychologically, so having the two populations back to back was a highly enriching way to learn further.
I did my thesis on body image in children’s art and body movement, where I turned to psychoanalytic writings to help me understand what I was observing. I later worked in a community mental health center in Jersey City, New Jersey, which permitted me to work with children and adults of all ages and all sorts of difficulties, individually and in groups, and where I gained a great wealth of experience. I was assigned all the patients who had any difficulty or reticence about communicating. To further my training as a psychotherapist I then enrolled in The New York School for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, a renowned psychoanalytic training institute from which I graduated.
I have since become a licensed psychoanalyst and licensed creative arts therapist in the State of New York. These licenses permit some patients in my practice to obtain insurance reimbursement.
GL: You use art therapy with patients with very different circumstances – from sufferers of trauma to cancer patients – what are the benefits?
ESM: As in psychotherapy, each patient uses art therapy differently, according to his or her needs, sometimes to handle anxiety, sometimes to deal with “unfinished business” and conflicts that have prevented them from fully becoming the person they hoped to be. Sometimes, patients use art therapy to explore identity or their femininity (in the case of women). This is particularly important in the case of medical illness, such as cancer. The benefits of art therapy include: increased self-understanding, increased self-esteem, a capacity to better handle life’s circumstances, a sense of greater flexibility, sometimes, a better capacity to be nurturing to their children and spouses.
There can be also a rebuilding of the self that takes place with certain people, especially after serious trauma, as experienced in medical illness, even divorce or separation and all sorts of loss and other difficulties. I could go on, but again, there are no guarantees for what will be the specific therapeutic outcomes, as therapeutic benefits always vary. I should add that no substantial change ever happens over night. It is important to add that we can’t predict exactly how long therapy will take; each person is unique with unique needs.
GL: Is this kind of therapy broadly accepted by your peers or are there skeptics?
ESM: Many people today think that a psychoanalytic approach to psychotherapy or to art therapy is outdated. Yet they may be unfamiliar with recent developments in psychoanalytic thinking, from the time of infant observational studies of mothers and children which have yielded a wealth of information on what is needed in terms of building the structure of the psyche in a young child, as well as understanding the corresponding parenting experience. Understanding the different psychological phases of mother-child interaction, and then father-child interaction as well, has greatly informed researchers and psychoanalysts about treatment.
I think that many people view the psychoanalyst as a caricature of the “silent analyst.” Yet, today, at least in a contemporary psychoanalytic American (and usually British) approach, the therapist is much more active, the therapist doesn’t simply pronounce his or her “interpretations,” but the work and relationship is much more collaborative, more as two partners, yet with different roles, each coming to the therapeutic situation with his or her own special competencies to explore and understand the life of that particular patient. Often the psychoanalytic psychotherapist (or psychoanalytically oriented art therapist) will help to rebuild the self, not simply make what was “unconscious conscious,” as was so in classical analysis.
In France, art therapy is as yet an unregulated profession without strict standards for training. The same is true for psychotherapy. Therefore, skeptics can be justifiably concerned as to the competence and credentials of many therapists.
Of course, art therapy is far less well known than psychotherapy, and is practiced in many different ways, often very different from my own approach. I think that when choosing a therapist, it is very important to be careful about whom to choose, especially those promising all sorts of personal transformations and quick results.
GL: You also teach “Psychology in English” at Ecole des Psychologues Praticiens, The Catholic University in Lyon – what are the core themes of this course and who is it for?
ESM: I have taught second year psychology students and now will also teach the third year. The course has two specific aims, one that the students perfect their English and, second, in doing so, they learn an American or British approach to psychology. Since I am not an English teacher per se, I teach the writings in psychology of authors and psychoanalysts whom students probably wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise, or would study in less depth in their other courses.
I also emphasize learning about observational studies involving mothers and children, often through film. I’ve always enjoyed teaching and had taught pre-schoolers in the distant past and graduate students in art therapy for many years at New York University and elsewhere. I’ve supervised the practical work of art therapists and psychotherapists since the 70s, both at New York University and after moving to France. Since 1984, I’ve supervised art therapy interns in Italy (Turin) and Switzerland (Lausanne) and have taught in Paris and Berlin as well. I am passionate about the importance of training of new therapists and enjoy immensely participating in their learning.
GL: Why did you come to Grenoble originally?
ESM: I moved to Grenoble when I married my husband, who was already living here.
GL: You are an artist yourself. Tell us about your work!
ESM: I’ve always returned to my own art as a source of renewal and pleasure, though in recent years, I’ve had far less time to concentrate on my own work. My focus was always on painting and stone sculpture.
GL: Give us some contact information for your practice.
ESM: To make an appointment for a consultation, my phone number is: 04 76 54 03 12. My practice is located at: 1 rue Beyle-Stendhal, Grenoble. Tramway stop: Place de Verdun, Line A.