An interview with Reji Mathew, Ph.D., LCSW, REAT – Registered Expressive Arts Therapist/Educator, Arts Accessibility Advocate on October 1, 2023 by George Ackerman, Ph.D, J.D.
Please tell me a little about your background.
The expressive arts are central to my worldview, work, life, and social activism. I am an award-winning intermodal artist, thinker, educator, and neuroscience-informed psychotherapist. Integrating different art forms is intrinsic to my creative process and therapeutic approach. My philosophy for therapeutic expressive arts is grounded in several core principles that inform my approach to healing, teaching, and training.
My therapeutic worldview is based on narratology and narrative therapy. This intersects with a commitment to understanding our complex identities, including class, culture, location, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and accessibility. I begin my understanding of a person in the context of time, place, and culture.
Human experience can sometimes defy language, and the arts can provide the safety of aesthetic distance and limitless accessible entry points through movement, sound, story, art, and imagination to find one’s personal narrative. In the expressive arts, intermodal is a concept that offers the arts as a processing tool. The “intermodal invitation” conceptualization guides my counseling approach; specifically, how does this person or community enter their inner world?
My graduate education in social work, cultural studies, and community health at New York University shaped my therapeutic framework. I specialize in evidence-based treatment approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT), mindfulness, positive psychology (PP), resiliency, and mind-body wellness. My approach is also trauma-informed, and I have trained in eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR).
Can you tell me more about your advocacy?
In my expressive arts training, I have also learned that each person has an expressive range, and methods of therapeutic expressive play can be a path for self-expansion, problem-solving, and developmental growth. In 2020, I received an ARTS Leadership award from BRIDGES, the Rockland Independent Living Center, for my community-based arts initiatives.
As a street academic, I present in settings ranging from non-profits to hospitals, primarily speaking on providing mental health coping skills education with culturally affirming attunement. I collaborate with various communities to teach evidence-based psychotherapy models integrated with an expressive approach to healing and well-being.
For my own arts-based work, I am an intermodal artist. My current art practice includes arts advocacy and art creation. My art installations are intermodal, and I create work in several mediums: visual, narrative, animation, and live spoken-word performance. My art explores themes of wonder, resiliency, and expressive play. I am a board member of BRIDGES, the Rockland Independent Living Center, and on the advisory board for Rockland Music Conservatory. I am honored to be the Arts Accessibility Educator and Activist for Anti-Racist Art Teachers.
Expressive arts are my lifelong path of healing, discovery, and integrating mind, body, spirit, and imagination. The mission of my work is to teach the benefits of cultivating inner artistry as a direct problem-solving tool to bring to life challenges.
What is your passion and how did you get involved in Parkinson’s awareness and hope for a cure?
I am passionate about the art form of Dance choreography to aid in the well-being and resiliency of people with Parkinson’s. I have both experienced and seen firsthand the power of adaptive movement for people with all kinds of neuro-muscular disabilities.
What type of goals do individuals with Parkinson’s have when working with you?
Cultivating inner creativity abilities as a resource to bring to the challenges of daily life.
What type of training and how long are the programs?
I conduct expressive arts work each semester, and they are tailored to the needs of each class of students.
What effect can your advocacy have on an individual with Parkinson’s?
I have conducted 2 interviews on the power of Dance/Movement/Choreography for People with Parkinson’s and having an upcoming series of interviews in 2024 on the power of movement for movement & neuro-muscular disabilities. Here are links to my interviews with teaching artist in the Dance for PD community.
Dance for PD – David Leventhal – Mark Morris Dance Company
Reporter’s Notebook – Disastershock.com
Dance for Health – Dance for PD Canada
What would you like to see as a future goal for your advocacy?
Increasing insurance reimbursement coverage for holistic, integrative medical care from acute care to long-term home care assistance and resiliency care. The cost of medical care is such a challenge, health care is a human right and helps the life-long wellbeing of individuals, families, and communities.
What events do you participate in?
I am an accessibility activist involved in a diverse path toward social justice and equity in the area of accessibility:
- I am an arts reporter for Disastershock.com
- Arts Accessibility Advocate for Anti-Racist Arts Teachers
- Board Member of International Expressive Arts Therapy Association
- Board Member of BRIDGES, CIL – Center for Independent Living.
How does your advocacy also assist the caregivers?
Caregivers are a critical anchor for people living with Parkinson’s Disease, but it is important to note they also have needs are at risk of burnout and in need of support. Arts based programming include family and caregivers. On countless occasions, I have witnessed various caregivers attend the Dance for PD classes with a participant, it is such a moving experience to see how the arts can bring families together and reduce stress.
How can someone get in touch? What is your website?
Reji Mathew, PhD, LCSW, REAT – https://www.rejimathewphd-writer.com/
Registered Expressive Arts Therapist
Expressive Arts Advocate/Educator
How can others also become advocates for awareness?
Know your strengths; there are many ways to contribute – political action, caregiver support, supporting your community, being a friend to a person with Parkinson’s, etc. Any and all advocacies are invaluable, you will also find you will get so much in return.
If you could add any questions to this interview that you may want others to learn about, what would the question(s) be?
I am a person with a lifelong neuromuscular disability (chair user). Expressive arts are my lifelong path of healing, discovery, and integrating mind, body, spirit, and imagination. The mission of my work is to teach the benefits of cultivating inner artistry as a direct problem-solving tool to bring to life challenges.
Each day, I move through the world relying on my artistic aesthetic sensibility. Inner musicality is a metaphor to think about the nuances in problem-solving; visual arts help me have a broad imagination. My dramatic instincts create a sense of playfulness in stressful interpersonal situations. The Expressive Arts are an inner resource for me, and the mission of my work is to inspire people to cultivate inner artistry as a tool to bring to the challenges of daily life.
I live my daily life with the spirit of this mission.
In your opinion what is the key to effective advocacy?
Having a neuromuscular condition and relying on a complex set of mobility/adaptive equipment is a constant challenge in affirmative coping and accessing my inner resilience. When I realized that every year or so as my condition evolved and my body changed, I had to accept that evolving the way I move and live is the world is a journey of accepting pivoting as a way of life.
To face this challenge with more creativity, I learned more about improvisation through dance and music classes, which shifted the paradigm for me to think of every day as a choreographic improvisational challenge and not only a stressor. Also, it takes a village to be well, and it is not a singular effort. Individual heroics are overrated.
If you had one final statement or quote you could leave for the Parkinson’s community, what would it be?
“Just take one note on an adventure.” – Dr. Reji Mathew
Music, specifically percussion studies, is a great source of inspiration for me. Percussive notes can be soft, loud, nuanced, and inserted at any pace in a musical composition. Percussion is an incredible metaphor for me about improvisation. What I have learned through the study of percussion is that I can use a percussive mindset and improvise my way through my day at any pace; in other words, I have learned how to honor and work with the pace of my body, no matter how hard the day.
- Website: https://www.rejimathewphd-writer.com/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/rejimathewwriter/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reji.mathew2
- Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rejimathewphd/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/rmwriter
- Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCyvA4lUl4Ku2aalaQbWTfoQ
- Other: Tumblr – Expressive Arts For Kids Blog –https://positivity-and-health-for-kids.tumblr.com/
Current Creative Projects
- Reporters Notebook, Disastershock.com – https://www.disastershock.com/reporter-s-notebook
- Dance for Health, Disastershock.com –https://www.disastershock.com/about-3-2
- Arts Accessibility – ARAT – Anti-Racist Art Teachers https://www.antiracistartteachers.org/arts-accessibility
- Board Member, IETA International Expressive Arts Therapy – https://www.bridgesrc.org/
- Board Member, BRIDGES, Center for Independent Living – https://www.bridgesrc.org/