Re-Imagining Home: Improving Newcomer Mental Wellbeing through Art

By Lana Cho & Arla Dakli, Hubs for Expressive Arts for Life (HEAL) Project Support (Placement Students)
colourful drawing with bright yellow streaks; one person wearing a blue outfit with red stars is shown in multiple scenarios across the page, with accompanying words such as "S.O.S", "Family", "Travel", "Eat, enjoy fun", and "Music school/park"
Art created by a newcomer woman in Access Alliance’s Virtual Expressive Arts for Women Group ‘New Beginnings: Our Stories

For most of us, home is a comforting space to begin and end the day. However, this is not true for everyone. An alarming number of Canadians experience domestic violence: Statistics Canada reported that 432,000 women and 279,000 men reported having experienced intimate partner violence  between 2014 and 2019 (a figure that is likely higher due to underreporting). The definition of domestic violence is also important as it underscores the fact that violence comes in many forms. It is defined as any violence committed within the home including physical, sexual, emotional or psychological, financial or economic, and digital violence. November is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. This is an opportunity for us to learn about what domestic violence is, how it affects people, and what resources are available for survivors of domestic violence. Access Alliance provides some of these resources, including expressive arts programming to improve mental health.

Expressive Arts as a Way to Improve Mental Wellbeing 

Expressive arts uses various art forms (e.g. visual arts, music, movement, performance, etc.) to improve mental and physical wellbeing. Access Alliance expressive arts programs started in 2002 and over the last two decades has evolved into a team-based and culturally sensitive program that integrates the help of healthcare professionals. Expressive arts groups provide individuals with transformative experiences to mitigate social isolation, strengthen community connections and promote self-care and wellbeing. The groups are geared primarily towards newcomer women.

Most recently, Access Alliance facilitated a program called ‘New Beginnings: Our Stories’. Newcomer women were guided through reflective journaling and art-making with oil pastels to reflect on safe and special places in their lives. This experience supported positive thinking and self- expression in a setting with others who share similar life experiences.

colourful drawing with bright yellow streaks; one person wearing a blue outfit with red stars is shown in multiple scenarios across the page, with accompanying words such as "S.O.S", "Family", "Travel", "Eat, enjoy fun", and "Music school/park"

In my drawing, I have a superpower, teleportation, which allows me to be in any place I want with my family: (with) my son at school, my husband, eating my favourite food, and in any place I like. Being able to be happy, protect and care for my family and friends is important in my life.

-Expressive arts participant



colourful drawing with multiple people (stick figures) flying kites in a blue sky. Kites are different colours. There is also a bundle of multicoloured balloons that has been released into the sky.

This drawing is showing Canada and reminds me of my home in Bangladesh. We used to fly kites, with many different designs. It has brought me joy with my family.

-Expressive arts participant



Coloured drawing of a green hill, blue clouds and big yellow sun

This is a place I have been able to get to know. It is a place where I love the sun and being outside in nature. It is not just about loving the sun, it is more about receiving gifts from mother nature that benefit my mental health.

-Expressive arts participant


The programming incorporates person centred therapy, which focuses on an individual’s personal dynamics and dialogue to promote health. Applying this approach to group-based art interventions can help to promote feelings of community, acceptance, alleviation of guilt, and restoration of self-reliance among participants.

For example, one participant shared, “It was nice seeing the same group of women every week. Even when we were in our own homes we were able to build connections and friendships.” Another woman emphasized, “Hearing others’ situations are similar to mine or are even more stressed, you realize that you can learn from others just from a word or even a draw(ing) makes me feel good.”

Most of all, expressive arts is conducive to newcomer populations as it transcends culture and language barriers and enhances their community of support and networks.

Reclaiming a sense of home

Despite relocating to a new living situation away from their aggressor, victims of domestic violence are likely to experience post-traumatic symptoms. Art-based activities that are guided by a mental health professional or art therapist can support participants to develop the necessary coping mechanisms to understand difficult emotions or feelings, and ultimately find ways to learn to live with their traumatic pasts. This helps newcomer individuals to increase their understanding of themselves and encourage them on their journey towards healing. In other words, no matter what past traumas or stories participants may experience, connecting the mind, heart and hands is helpful in re-imagining their homes as safe and special places.

“Participating in the program I learnt that with support and guidance a person can express themselves easier. I surprised myself when I drew my feelings and the reactions of my hands with the connection it had with my brain and thoughts.” – Expressive arts participant

Expressive arts has proven to be an effective method in promoting the mental well-being of those maneuvering tough experiences. Christen Kong, a community health promoter at Access Alliance, believes this to be particularly true when it comes to supporting the organization’s client communities:

“Art-based practices are up and coming as we continue to learn how it provides ways for newcomers to express themselves in non-verbal ways, mitigating language barriers. It also provides evidence to how trauma is both in the mind and body, as art engages all the senses to help better understand ourselves. I look forward to the up and coming ‘Hub of Expressive Arts for Life—HEAL Project’ as Access Alliance investigates the most effective art-based activities to heal trauma of abuse and violence.”


More on mental health and domestic violence

Barriers to disclosure

Victims of domestic violence encounter barriers to disclosing abuse including fear of additional harm, social stigma, and judgment of being seen as a “bad partner”. They also often underplay the harm they are experiencing. Newcomers to Canada and newcomer women in particular, endure a multitude of additional challenges resulting in a higher risk of domestic violence. Factors such as their socioeconomic position, immigration status in Canada, limited knowledge of available culturally appropriate support services and resources, unresolved pre-migration trauma, social isolation, loss of culture and family structures, and power imbalances between partners all play a role in the likelihood of them coming forward.

Impact on mental health

Although domestic violence is often associated with physical violence, the psychological impacts can be more pervasive and long-lasting. Since those who inflict violence are reported to be family members or intimate partners, those who are meant to be ‘safe’, victims may develop low self-esteem, lose trust in close relationships and become isolated, all of which can have an impact on mental health. Luckily, certain therapeutic interventions can help. Expressive arts is one such intervention that is backed by evidence as a beneficial and effective practice to help those who have experienced past traumas heal.


Learn more about Access Alliance’s expressive arts programming here.

If you, or someone you know, is currently experiencing or at risk of domestic violence, here are some resources you can access in Toronto or remotely.