ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Nicole Porter says as a creative arts therapist, she’s experienced first-hand that talking isn’t always the easiest way to ease pain, grief, or frustration.

“The nonverbal process helps engage inner, subcortical regions of the brain that then activate our verbal processes in a more integrated way,” Porter explains to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.

As clinical director of The Emerald Sketch, she works with children and young adults struggling through mental health crises. 

Ilana Mele says her daughter suffers from anxiety brought on by her developmental delays. Before art therapy, she says watching her daughter struggle at expressing herself was frightening.

“[As a parent], you feel helpless. You’re doing everything you can to help them and support them and you know who they are inside, but then there’s this element that they can’t process,” Mele says. “When my daughter became frustrated, she would sometimes manifest unwanted aggression, and I say unwanted to mean that’s not what she wanted to present or express, but she couldn’t articulate what she was feeling.”

“Everyone’s experienced that shutdown of [not] being able to say what you’re experiencing—what you’re feeling,” Porter adds.

Porter further explains nonverbal expression also helps those who have experienced trauma—including school shooting survivors like during the Sandy Hook Healing Project.

“I was there on the ground a few days later and it was about being in the moment and grounding in a sense of safety right then,” she says.

Porter also on the ground with NEWS10 during a statewide panic surrounding hoax school shooter calls. She says creative art therapy could help students express the real fear they felt, but unfortunately, art therapy isn’t fully covered by most insurance and schools aren’t required to provide art therapy as an option.

“I work really hard to mobilize for the disenfranchised children here by raising funds and providing services out of the goodness of my heart, because of gun violence on the street. Gun violence is high, especially in Albany and Troy where I mainly operate,” she says.

“We are paying out of pocket,” says Mele, who’s daughter is showing progress now eight sessions in with Porter’s program. “We do have insurance, but it’s a high deductible plan and it wouldn’t cover everything. I know how frustrating it was for us to try to figure that out and feeling like this is the thing that’s going to help. I don’t know if it’s within reach.”

One move that could help grease the wheels is the hotly debated budget. Porter asks Governor Hochul to take the first step.

“You [Hochul] have the power to sign licensed creative arts therapists into “Part Q” of the mental health hygiene bill which would enable all people on Medicaid to access creative arts therapy in their community,” she says.

The 2024 budget currently includes an amendment to the state’s public health law as it applies to hospital reimbursement through federal programs, ie. Medicaid. However, the current bill’s form only includes “licensed mental health counselors and licensed marriage and family therapists.”

Art therapists do not qualify as either due to what Porter calls an inequity in classifications for obtaining licenses. While it could conventionally be seen as easier to obtain a Licensed Creative Arts Therapy (LCAT) license requiring one year and 1,000 client contract hours–versus three years and 2,000 client contract hours required for a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)– Porter says through her work with the New York Art Therapy Association, she’s determined LCAT holders make up 14 percent of the New York therapy landscape and provide a critical role.

“By offering that nonverbal option, you’d be giving New York constituents a choice and we’ve all felt times where talking just wasn’t working for us,” Porter says. “We [LCAT licensees] have jumped through all those same hoops to be a licensed clinical practitioner in New York State, and that should be valued.”

“As a preventative measure, we can also include art therapy up front where every school has someone like me right there working with them. Not just in institutions, not just when it’s the worst case scenario, but that’s legislation that could be passed as well to ensure a school requirement,” she further adds.

Mele says she hopes more people can experience the progress she and her daughter have seen.

“She’s learning emotional intelligence, she’s learning self regulation, she’s learning coping skills, and that’s all really the basis for so much of being a human,” says Mele. “The pride also that she feels knowing that she is able to do this has been incredible.”