Mask Therapy in Play Therapy: Giving A Face to Invisible Wounds

For those who celebrate Halloween each year, you know how exciting it can be to look through costumes and masks at the store as you decide who or what you want to be for the holiday. For therapists and clients at ChildSavers, these masks have worth beyond trick-or-treating. Masks (mask therapy) can be used in art and play therapy.

Mask therapy can help children give a “face” to their invisible or hidden feelings. In her TED Talk, “Art can heal PTSD’s invisible wounds,” Melissa Walker (2015) talks about how mask-making has helped servicemen and women process traumatic experiences through therapy.

PTSD and Mask Therapy

young girl expresses herself during child therapy with a mask

One symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is remembering a traumatic experience over and over again. Through neuroimaging, or “brain-mapping,” scientists discovered that the area of the brain that manages speech and language can shut down because of traumatic (Walker, 2015). Additionally, Walker refers to this feeling as “speechless terror.” Further, traumatic experiences can also cause people to distance, or isolate, themselves from others because of feelings of shame. Walker calls this combination of “speechless terror” and self-shame a recipe for “invisible wounds.”

While physical wounds heal over time, invisible wounds can exist unresolved for years. Through neuroimaging, scientists found that the areas of the brain where traumatic wounds and feelings are stored is also the same space where healing occurs (Walker, 2015). Art therapy can help to bridge these gaps.

Using Art Therapy Masks at ChildSavers

Elementary school-age boy in a clown costume during therapy at childsavers.

Walker (2015) discusses her use of art and mask-making as ways to help victims of trauma create a picture to represent their scary experiences. In Walker’s TED Talk, one person describes the process of creating the mask and giving his feelings a “face” as the key that helped him unlock his story. For him, it was telling his story that helped him process his trauma and move forward.

At ChildSavers, we are very lucky to have a space dedicated to art therapy, and we have a cart of art supplies that can be rolled to therapy offices. Our own stock of supplies includes blank masks and many options for decorating: markers, paint, magazine cutouts, felt, and fabric. When clients can be creative with art supplies, they have the chance to tell their story in their own language.

We use mask-making in therapy at ChildSavers for different client needs. For children who are dealing with big feelings like depression, anxiety, anger, or fear, making masks can help create a visual for a feeling they are trying to understand. I have had clients use masks to show their inner and outer worlds. The front of the mask represents the face they show the world. The inside of the mask represents the fears, worries, or anxieties they feel they have to hide to get through the day. When a child has a safe space to create this art, process their feelings, and tell their stories, they have an opportunity to “re-fill their cup” to get through the week ahead; it is this chance to process feelings that can help a child and family cope with trauma and life’s many challenges.

Donate Costumes to ChildSavers

child holding bear wearing superhero costume during teletherapy at home.

Like masks, playing dress-up is part of creative play and can help lower stress or help clients tell stories. If you would like to donate new masks or costumes for our child therapy clients, or would like to contribute art supplies, please contact Annie Evans to arrange a drop off.


References

Walker, M. (2015, November). Melissa Walker: Art can heal PTSD’s indivisible wounds [Video file].

Recommendations

If you are a resident of Greater Richmond, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is exhibiting masks from the Congo. This could be a great opportunity for you and your children to experience cultural expressions through masks.


 

Kristin Lennox, LCSW, is our Program Supervisor for Immediate Response here at ChildSavers. She began with ChildSavers as an intern, and joined the Immediate Response team after graduating with her MSW from VCU’s School of Social Work. Kristin is passionate about advocating for disenfranchised groups. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling, exercising, and trying every vegetarian option at new restaurants.

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