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Oct. 27, 2017

The young artists have chocolate pudding all over their hands. They use their palms to create big smears or their fingertips to make intricate designs all over their big sheets of fingerpainting paper. Some have looks of concentration on their faces. Others chatter and laugh. There’s not a stressed or unhappy-looking face here.

It’s not preschool. The artists are university students. They’re participating in a “chocolate art therapy” workshop for Thrive Week, a new initiative to promote student mental health.

The workshop, the first of its kind at Laurier, is the brainchild of counsellor and psychotherapist Lindsay Rennie.

Though Rennie has been a Laurier staff member for nearly 20 years after earning a master’s degree in social work, also from Laurier, her former career was in early childhood education.

Her more recent education and experience taught her the therapeutic values of art and touch. Her past working with young children taught her about the joy and freedom of fingerpainting. It was a natural to combine the two.

Though it might seem a simple activity, Rennie sees plenty of benefits to fingerpainting, even for adults.

“It’s a good sensual experience,” she says. “It allows stimulation of all five senses at the same time. It also fosters imagination and creativity. And the big thing is, it’s very emotionally healing. It can be not only soothing but uplifting as well.”

It can be emotionally freeing to express yourself through art, without words and symbols, says Rennie.

“It’s also a great booster for concentration because it’s highly engaging and a great stress reliever because it’s a very relaxing activity. And it’s fun.”

Emily Hartman, a first-year music student, said she came to the workshop in part because she wants to be a music therapist and wanted to experience another form of art therapy.

“I also thought it would be really de-stressing so I thought it could help me with midterms and stuff, to unwind and feel relaxed. It’s really nice. I’m enjoying it. I love chocolate.”

Nicole Molinari, a second-year business student, said she was enjoying her first fingerpainting experience since childhood.

“I’ve never heard of chocolate art before but I really like it. It’s really relaxing and it’s something new that I wouldn’t have thought to experience or try anywhere else. I thought it would be fun to channel my inner child.”

At the end of the workshop, the students’ creations are left to dry. They will later have the option to take them home or leave them to display in the Student Health and Development Centre where the workshop took place. Either way, Rennie says the students will take some less concrete lessons with them.

One, most directly, is that fingerpainting can be good for stress relief and self-expression. Rennie says she hopes some participants will do it again on their own.

An extension is that art is good for us. Whether it’s strumming melancholy chords on a guitar or angrily punching clay into shape, art can help us express our feelings and create something tangible that we can reflect on and take pride in.

Thrive Week as a whole offered a variety of events to help students focus on wellness. Rennie says she hopes students had a chance to explore the skills, strategies and activities that work best for them to stay well in a holistic sense.

As midterms, papers and finals loom, it’s important to have both the skills and support to keep stress in check, says Rennie. On the support side, this includes knowing who to turn to when feeling alone, overwhelmed or in crisis.

Friends and family are important parts of a support network, says Rennie. “The key thing I always encourage students to think about is not to be alone with their stress.”

For objective support or help in crisis, there are a number of other sources of support:

  • The Student Wellness Centres on Laurier’s Waterloo and Brantford campuses provide face-to-face support for physical and mental health.
  • Good2Talk provides Ontario post-secondary students with professional counselling, information and referrals by phone, anytime.
  • Here 24/7 provides mental health, addictions and crisis support by phone, anytime.
  • Local hospitals can provide emergency assistance in a crisis, anytime.
  • There are many more mental health resources on campus.
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