From New York to Riga: Providing Remote Support Across Cultures
Julia Volonts is an Art Therapist from United States, currently living in Riga after moving to Latvia in 2019 on a Fulbright scholarship. During this time, Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) acted as her affiliate organisation for conducting research. She also had the opportunity to lecture and present at their annual health and personality conference. Stina Jantke is the current Assistant to the Medical Science Director on the Board of the RSU International Student Association (ISA) where she oversees research, medical workshops, and anything that’s not related to the syllabus, but for students’ personal growth.
Julia is an alumni of the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York City, where she received her clinical training. This autumn, SVA approached her with an art therapy project with the idea to foster a cross-cultural exchange and Julia immediately thought the international student community at RSU and reached out to the RSU ISA.
Julia, tell me about SVA, this project and explain briefly what art therapy is.
Julia: The Art Therapy program at School of Visual Arts incorporates a special projects component into their curriculum. Special projects are short-term art therapy experiences that students facilitate under the supervision of a board-certified art therapist. These special projects provide students with the opportunity to work within the community and provides additional professional development outside of the classroom and their fieldwork sites. When I attended SVA, I participated in many special projects; I remember collaborating with community organisations that serviced populations such as LGBTQ youth, children in foster care, the homeless, and adults with developmental disabilities.
Prior to the pandemic, SVA special projects mainly focused on communities within the New York area, but now Zoom has made it easier to connect internationally. This project with RSU acts as a cross cultural exchange between the art therapy counselling team at SVA and medical students from Latvia and other parts of the world that would have not been able to receive this type of mental health support otherwise.
I like to define art therapy as a form of psychotherapy that integrates creative arts with talk therapy to inspire emotional, physical, and mental well-being. It is a non-verbal and visceral form of processing that allows individuals to communicate their thoughts, feelings, and experiences through imagery.
Stina, tell me what it was about the project that caught your attention.
Stina: I was contacted by the ISA President who had heard of Julia and asked me if I thought this was a good idea that we should pursue. I read about it and immediately thought “yes, we definitely need this” because although the university did offer some support at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, this support is not in place anymore. We have been approached by students on several occasions asking whether there is any support available to them. We had some meetings with everyone involved to start organising and basically filled the workshop up really quickly!
Julia: Stina has been amazing help in organising. She went above and beyond to create a survey in order to understand the RSU students’ needs and why they were interested to join the group. We had a really great response and this provided valuable information for the SVA counselling team to think about what their therapeutic approach should be. We only offered 15 spots in the group, and if we round up, around 30 students responded wanting to participate within the first one or two days of it being announced!
So, Julia, you act as a facilitator between SVA and RSU.
Julia: Yes, exactly. Since I participated in many of these projects when I was a student, the opportunity to collaborate with SVA on a special project is like a full circle - coming back to where I started out and be able to provide the counselling team at SVA support to facilitate this group. I act as the supervisor to make sure that things run smoothly and to coordinate with Stina, RSU and SVA. I really want to ensure that everyone has a beneficial experience in providing the emotional support and mutual engagement.
How many students from SVA are participating in these groups or this exchange?
Julia: I coordinate directly with the professor that leads the special projects program and was introduced to about five SVA counseling team students. They alternate each week on running the group.
How is the group organised?
Julia: The SVA students have done a fantastic job in creating a comfortable space and group structure. They facilitate it in different segments; for example, one team member will lead an introductory breathing activity, followed by another who introduces the art activity, which then leads to processing the art and closing.
Of the RSU students participating, what would you say the split is between what year of study they are in?
Stina: I would say that most students are in either the first year or the fourth. There are almost no second-year students, but that’s mostly because the third and fourth semesters are really hard and there are colloquiums and exams almost every week, so they just have no time. They don’t even have time to suffer! [laughs] Regarding studies in the fourth year - I always feel like when the tension is so heightened, your body just functions. I don’t know how, but afterwards when the pressure releases and you finally relax, that’s when you realise “ok this was really stressful, I need help, I can’t cope with this stress. I need something in the long run to figure out how to cope and overcome stressful situations.” I don’t know if that’s the case for everyone, but that would be my perception.
What were the main reasons the students gave for wanting to participate?
Stina: Among the first-year students most have just arrived in a new country, everything is new, and they don’t see a lot of people because they don’t have in-person classes. Basically, they only know the people that they live with, and those in their group, which is 12 people.
Julia: Among other reasons, many of the RSU students expressed interest in participating in order to connect with other students, practice self-care, cope with anxiety and isolation, process moving to a new country, deal with the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 and the loneliness of being away from home. Many were also curios about the art therapy process.
Stina: For fourth years students I think that COVID-19 is just an extra stressor on top. You finally realise that this is the final year, you’re almost done. You don’t see any patients. You have minimal contact with other people and isolation is just added pressure. Before, you could travel a lot, especially students from Europe could just go home for a weekend if they have a problem or were homesick, or it was their parents’ birthday, or there’s a funeral, but now with COVID-19, you feel further away from home because you don’t have that insurance that you can go home at any time, and you don’t know when you will be able to go back again. It might even only be in January, because you might not be able to go home for Christmas.
The coronavirus pandemic has seemingly made people pay attention to mental health more than before. Julia, would you say there’s more focus on mental health these days, or is it the same as before just in a different format?
Julia: Yes, I think there is a stronger emphasis on mental health at the moment. With clients, I find that what can happen is that when you are alone for a longer period of time than usual or if you have a lot of space to be with yourself and your thoughts, this can lead to increased lack of motivation or negative thought patterns. It is also very much a time of uncertainty, and sitting with uncertainty can provoke anxiety, especially if you are already dealing with a pre-existing mental health condition or are prone to stress.
I believe that caring for your mental health is just as important as your physical health and it needs to be maintained. Even just being able to validate an individual’s experience to let them know that they are not alone in what they are feeling can be powerful.
The beneficial thing about the current situation and moving therapeutic services online is that collaborations like this with SVA can happen. With Zoom, we can reach more people. Since living in Riga, I came to understand that there was a lack of mental health services available to international students. This is why I thought that if SVA wanted to do a project here in Latvia, this would be a great population to work with. It provides RSU students with a short-term art therapy group to get through the semester of online schooling, and additional stresses.
Therapy in general, but maybe especially art therapy, sounds like something very tangible and interpersonal – you need your tools, art supplies, and a connection to your therapist. And then also with a group, because you come to a group session in order to have other people within arms’ reach. What is it like doing all of that online?
Stina: I think especially regarding making art people might feel freer online, because nobody can look to the side and say, “what is she drawing?”
You can do it for yourself, and people are more open to drawing what they really feel. But then on the other hand when it comes to sharing I think it’s also easier to sit back and listen to what the others are saying, whereas when you’re participating in person and you’re being looked at, it makes you kind of feel some positive pressure to speak up. It’s the same in practical classes for me. If I’m in a lecture and the teacher’s looking at me, I am more open to respond to their questions than when I’m on Zoom.
What are the parameters of the programme? How many sessions are planned, and what happens when it ends?
Julia: There are eight session in total. We are currently halfway through, so the special project will be finished in early December. After that, Stina and I will check in to assess any feedback and explore if there are other mental health support initiatives we can plan for the next year.
Our goal by the end of the group is for this art therapy experience to have formed some sense of community amongst these RSU students and given them additional coping skills, whether it is through art making, or something that they have learned on their own in order to deal with the reason they initially decided to attend the group.
Photo from personal archive.
How have the SVA students responded so far?
Julia: I think it has been a beneficial learning experience for the SVA art therapy students, because although there is perhaps a larger population and more diversity in New York and in America overall, the students have predominantly worked with individuals living in the U.S. Therefore, to come in and have the opportunity to work with individuals from Sri Lanka, Germany, Sweden, and Latvia is meaningful.
It’s interesting for them to see how students from different backgrounds interact socially, and how they interact with the art, and how they share.
Stina, what is it that you’re thinking about once this programme ends? Do you have any ideas as to how you’d like to continue the collaboration?
Stina: We have not really talked about it yet, but we all agree that it’s a great programme. I don’t know yet exactly how we would build on this, but since we saw how many people wanted to sign up, we definitely want to do something similar again. Maybe we will send something to RSU to show that this is what the students need, this is what they want, and this is how we could fix it if you’re able to help us in some way.
Julia, is there anything you can suggest that students who aren’t able to participate, or who don’t have access to mental health support, can do? Is there any advice you can give them if they’re feeling anxious or stressed?
Julia: Everyone has a different circumstance and situations, so I cannot comment on what might be beneficial for the masses, however I would recommend someone who is struggling and unable to afford or have access to mental health services, to find a support network.
Things you can do on your own? I find journaling is helpful in order to contain thoughts and worries, also visual journaling if we are talking art therapy. I like visual journaling because you create an art space within a book; whether it’s drawing, writing, or collage, you have a place to put all of your emotions. Meditation is also helpful - breathing, disconnecting from social media, getting enough sleep.
Also self-care… self-care is a word that gets thrown around a lot, so what does that mean, exactly?
For me, self-care is about really honouring yourself and understanding that you are doing the best you can given your circumstances. It is trying to shift your thought patterns and practice self-compassion. And, of course, knowing when you can ask for help and that it’s OK to ask for help.
I think culturally, compared to my background living in America, it appears to be less common for people in Eastern and Northern parts of Europe to feel comfortable asking for help or seeking therapy. It is important check in with your feelings and knowing when enough is enough.
What are things like at other universities, or how are people elsewhere coping? Is RSU different in any way?
Stina: I think it is quite different, because most of the people that I know are studying in their home countries, possibly even close to where they’re from. Most people can go home for a weekend even if they do have classes.
Here everybody is far from home, which is why the international student community is actually really, really good, because everyone knows what the other person is feeling.
Nobody has their complete support system behind them and everyone is in another country and has a different culture.