Art Therapy Program Offers Healing at Danville State Hospital

by Nancy Bishop | March 19, 2024

Every day it seems like there are new headlines in the news about advances in medicine. Cancer has new treatments that offer long-term remission and even a cure. Diseases like tuberculosis that once might have had you locked away in a sanatorium have cures and vaccines to prevent them. New advancements in treatments and medications make diseases like diabetes manageable.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the treatment of mental illness. It’s now recognized as an illness that can be treated, and managed, not as something that people cause for themselves by poor lifestyle choices. Not something that makes people need to be locked away from society forever.

An exciting art therapy program at Danville State Hospital is making that healing happen. “It’s our job to treat the whole person,” State Hospital CEO TJ Burk told me when I visited recently. “Our aim is to treat consumers, help them with their recovery and then be discharged. We also teach them the skills they need to remain out of the hospital. When consumers leave here, they have purpose.”

Consumers in the art therapy program create their own artwork, which decorates the walls throughout the hospital. The artwork allows participants to express themselves. And the pictures brighten the halls and rooms.

A few examples of artwork from participants in the Art Therapy Program at Danville State Hospital.

When consumers see that staff and administrators at the hospital care about the place by having artwork around they think “therefore they must care about me,” Burk said. “The environment affects the psyche.”

Knowing that Kelly Klock in the Psychology Department at the hospital had both her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in art therapy and is a board certified and registered art therapist as well as a licensed professional counselor, Burk asked her to develop the art therapy program. Kelly reached out to Amy Shepperson from the hospital’s therapeutic recreation group to be the co-lead.

Left to right: Kelly Klock (program co-lead), TJ Burk (Danville State Hospital CEO), & Amy Shepperson (program co-lead).

Several days of the week, consumers in the art therapy program work in group sessions in a large conference room in the main building at the hospital. There they work on their art using paints and canvases purchased or donated from local stores. Sometimes there are instructors or guest speakers who come to help with the sessions. If they prefer, group members can make pottery instead of paintings.

“Art therapy is an outlet for creative self-expression, nonverbal communication and an empowering way to boost self-esteem,” Klock said. “It offers a non-threatening way to process difficult emotions and memories.”

Not everyone is blessed with talent for art. I know I’m not. But people are encouraged to try. Sometimes it’s just paint splashed on a canvas. But as the photos show, that can be beautiful, too.  And some of the art therapy participants enjoy expressing themselves by creating pottery. The woodworking shop at the hospital has been framing the paintings that decorate the walls.

Participants’ artwork is often framed by the in-house woodworking shop and displayed on the hospital’s walls.

One of the recent success stories in the program was a consumer who went to work for an art gallery in Harrisburg after he was discharged.

In addition to creating their own art, consumers also have visited local art galleries such as The Exchange in downtown Bloomsburg, the Art Grind in Danville, and Glen Klein’s Studio in Danville. “We’re grateful for the support of the community galleries,” Klock said.

In the past, there was a stigma about mental illness. Public perception was that people in the state hospital were “crazy” and should be locked up forever. But these are just people. People like you and me who simply have a treatable illness. Let’s treat them that way!