Expressive therapy helps patients deal with painful feelings

Masks are worn for a lot of reasons: for disguise, for protection or for entertainment.

Believe it or not, we all wear masks to cover our feelings from time to time. Some of us do it dozens of times a day.

“People don’t often realize they put on masks when interacting with others,” explains Aimee Gornick, LCPC, counselor with the Ingalls Behavioral Health Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) in Tinley Park.

We may wear masks when we’re working, meeting new people or even parenting. Depending on the situation, they may help us appear smarter, stronger and more in control.

“Masks protect us,” adds Jennifer Brown, LCSW. “But they can also make it difficult for us to develop healthy and meaningful connections with others.”

To help IOP patients break down barriers, get in touch with their feelings and learn successful coping strategies, Brown and Gornick use a highly effective form of expressive group therapy that involves…creating a mask.

Patients carefully choose colors and words to adorn the outside of their masks, e.g., a smiley face with adjectives like “happy” and “lovable.” This is the face they routinely show the world around them.

The inside of the mask, however, usually reveals something entirely different.

“Patients may draw a sad face and label it with descriptions like ‘sad, depressed or hopeless,’” Brown explains, “which reflects what’s really going on inside.”

“The exercise is about building connections in a safe, therapeutic setting,” Gornick added.

IOP patients may have deep-seeded reasons to cover up their feelings. They may be hiding past abuse, grief, loss or physical illness. And without a proper emotional outlet, they simply cover up and show a different face to the world around them.

“Talking about painful experiences isn’t easy,” Brown said. “And not everyone is ready to confront the pain.”

The mask exercise allows people to unburden their feelings and fears in a secure environment where they won’t be judged — and with others who are equally adept at shielding their emotions. When they’re done creating, each presents his or her mask to the group and explains what it represents.

“The exercise opens their eyes, minds and emotions and gives them some insight about what they’re holding in and what they need to do to move on in a healthy way,” Gornick said.

Expression is just one type of therapy offered to IOP patients. Other therapeutic modalities include cognitive therapy, behavioral therapy, emotion regulation therapy, relaxation techniques, social skills training and medication monitoring. The program treats individuals in crisis as well as those in need of long-term support. Most participants attend sessions three days a week for at least eight weeks, although treatment varies by an individual’s needs.

Intensive Outpatient Program

“The IOP offers a mid-level of care to patients experiencing depression or difficulty coping related to physical illness, job loss, divorce, the death of a loved one or financial difficulties,” explains psychiatrist Joseph Beck, M.D., medical director of the program.

“It keeps them out of the hospital so they can work or go to school, but it gives them intensive therapy to help them gain healthy coping skills.”

At the time of admission, patients are assigned an individual therapist and schedule a meeting with Dr. Beck for medication monitoring once every two weeks, or once a week if needed. Group sessions comprise a major part of the program and offer individuals a way to come to terms with their difficulties with others who truly understand where they’re coming from.

The IOP’s multidisciplinary treatment team of experts includes a psychiatrist, licensed clinical therapists, a registered nurse and a program assistant.