“Humility is essential for research”

Noa Levy Baron is graduating in May 2020 from the Dual BA Program Between Sciences Po and Columbia University. Majoring in Human Rights with a specialisation in Psychology, she wrote a research essay entitled “Art Therapy with Refugees: Overcoming Processes of Pathologization and Fostering Social Integration”, which won the Human Rights Institute of Columbia Essay Contest. Interview.

Your essay "Art Therapy with Refugees: Overcoming Processes of Pathologization and Fostering Social Integration” was recently selected as a winner of the Columbia University Human Rights Essay Contest. What led you to write on this topic?

I first wrote this essay for the class “Refugees, Forced Migration and Displacement”, taught by Lara Nettelfield. In this course, we studied the historical evolution of the refugee status and the various legal and policy debates around the current crisis. However, as a Human Rights major specialising in Psychology, I am particularly interested in the mental health aspects in regards to the situation of refugees and the additional burden that many have to carry with them: trauma.
 
When studying issues relating to refugees, we often focus on citizenship status, professional integration, and sometimes physical health, but we seldom discuss issues of mental health. And yet, mental health is, for many refugees, an essential dimension of their experiences. As Hannah Arendt discusses in her text “We, Refugees”, shame, trauma and discrimination are all too common themes for people who are displaced and had to leave behind their country, and with it, their often traumatic past. I was surprised by this “mental health gap” in modern literature on refugees, and saw an opportunity to dig deeper into it with this research paper.

How did you make the connection between mental health and art?

For a while now I have been interested in the intersection between human rights and the arts. When I arrived in New York I volunteered at the International Human Rights Art Festival, which is a week-long New York City festival that showcases visual and performing artists whose work revolves around human rights issues. Because I was a staff writer for the art magazine on campus, Ratrock Magazine, I saw the potential of artists on campus and decided to host a smaller version of the festival on the Columbia campus. The event took place last year and was a two-day festival of visual arts and performing arts, all related to issues of human rights and social issues - with themes pertaining to the historical roots of racism in the US, gender-based violence, gun violence, and more. The festival, especially the performing arts show, illustrated how art helps raise awareness about human rights issues, but also has a huge power of catharsis, not only for the audience who might have experienced traumas or issues showcased in the art, but for artists themselves who might use their art as a form of healing.

What did you find in your research on art therapy? 

When I started writing my essay, I interviewed several student artists who reinforced this idea that art practice is a form of therapy, a way to heal from past experiences. In parallel, I started to research literature on art therapy to heal trauma, for former soldiers, survivors of sexual abuse, etc. I came to learn that recent neuroscience studies show that the part of the brain that focuses on speech (Broca area) can shut down after a trauma, and practicing art actually stimulates this same part of the brain, offering the possibility to “reopen” it in a less painful way. In “The Body Keeps the Score”, author Bessel Van Der Kolk argues that trauma, or being traumatized, is a failure of imagination. After a traumatic event, the victim is constantly being pulled back into their past and they cannot imagine another possible future. Thus, creativity, the power to imagine a different future, is a way to heal from the trauma.

In what ways can art therapy be particularly beneficial for refugees?

In my essay, I discuss four reasons why art therapy can be very beneficial for refugees to heal from past trauma and facilitate their integration into a new country:

  • No or fewer language barriers: traditional therapy mostly relies on verbal communication; art therapy provides another means of expression and communication.
  • Overcoming cultural differences: In many cultures, going to therapy is seen as a sign of weakness and can even be regarded as something shameful. Art therapy has the potential to overcome these cultural barriers and be attractive to people who would otherwise not seek help.
  • Empowerment: Art therapy provides a feeling of agency and empowerment because it allows people to actively participate, express themselves and create a tangible work of art.
  • Fighting stigmatisation: Art can be shared and spread, and therefore can become an outlet for refugees’ stories to be heard and a means of fighting stigmatisation. In this sense, art therapy can become a powerful tool for inclusion.

Conceptual artwork illustrating identity through digital fingertips © Lightspring, Shutterstock / Conceptual artwork illustrating identity through digital fingertips © Lightspring, Shutterstock

Conceptual artwork illustrating identity through digital fingertips © Lightspring / Shutterstock

You are graduating this year from the Dual BA Program between Sciences Po and Columbia University. What led you to choose this program and what has been your experience?

I was born in New York but my family moved back to France soon after and so I had never actually lived there. Nonetheless, I have ever since felt strong emotional ties to this vibrant city. Growing up in France, Sciences Po was a university that I always aspired to go to, and when I was a senior in high school I discovered that there was a dual degree between Sciences Po and Columbia just one month before applying! It was a dream come true to discover that there was a program that would allow me to study at both universities. I applied in a rush, but I was admitted!
 
I spent my first two years at Sciences Po on the Reims campus, which is very multicultural and many say has a sort of “American style” of teaching. But when I arrived at Columbia, I realized that the academia at Sciences Po in Reims was still very much European. Having this dual exposure really widens your horizons and allows you to get the best of both worlds: we all came to appreciate the advantages of a European and an American education.
 
What I liked most about this dual degree is that we learn to be humble: whether we are French or American or of another nationality, we are at some point in the program a sort of “foreigner” - whether in Reims or in New York (or both)- we must adapt to a new setting that we are not familiar with, with new academic styles, new professors and new cultural references. It can be uncomfortable at the beginning, but this constant (re)adaptation serves as a reminder that there are plenty of lenses through which we can understand the world around us. I think this lesson in humility is fundamental and is an especially essential skill for research. Humility serves as a reminder that we should always question what we think we know; that there is always more to learn. It pushes you to be curious and to always look further.

What do you plan to do next?

In the fall I am returning to Sciences Po to pursue a Master’s degree in Public Policy with a concentration in Cultural Policy and Management. Through the classes I took as an undergraduate at Sciences Po and Columbia, I have gained a strong framework on the international and human rights side, but I now want to focus more closely on the arts with the end goal of connecting the two. With this master’s, I aim to learn about implementing social policies in regards to art and culture.

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