Art and Mental Health: Art Therapy, Benefits and Examples
Art and mental health share a close link. In any form, art serves as a tool to turn intangible experiences into something that we can see and touch. Think of Paul Cezanne, who, during his dark period, was able to depict his depression in paintings such as the “Pyramid of skulls” and “The murder.” Or Van Gogh, who showed evidence of his hallucinations in “Starry Night,” which he painted from the window of his asylum room.
In Van Gogh’s time, many of the mental health challenges we know today were not clinically recognized. Today, mental health professionals not only possess a better understanding of their patient’s illnesses, but they sometimes use art and art therapy to communicate with their patients and aid their recovery.
An Example of Art and Mental Health:
An example is Terry Rustin, a psychotherapist who uses visual art to connect with his patients2. He listens as they describe their feelings, puts himself in their shoes, and creates a painting (or visual psychodrama as he calls it) of what they feel.
For him, this process helps to understand better the stress his patients feel. For his patients, the effect is significant. Seeing their feelings painted out assures them that their doctor is listening and can almost feel what they feel. This encourages them to open up to Rustin, eventually leading to better psychotherapy results.
Rustin’s results are not a coincidence. What he practices is a branch of therapy known as art therapy. So far, his methods have helped him to progress with his mental health patients.
He gives an example of one of those patients in his published research paper, “Using artwork to understand the experience of mental illness.” Rustin had diagnosed Larry with bipolar disorder, amongst other things. During a session, Larry began to describe his feelings towards his father- anger, despair, and loss. Rustin made a painting as he spoke to represent Larry’s feelings. When he showed it to the patient, Larry said: “I want to burn that painting.”
This was perhaps the first time he had seen anything which visually represented his feelings so well. This visual validation helped Larry’s progress through therapy.
Rustin’s method of practicing art therapy is not all there is to the field. Therapists use different methods in employing art therapy during their sessions. Here’s an explanation of what art therapy is.
The Art of Art Therapy
Practitioners base art therapy on the idea that the creative process of art-making provides healing and life-enhancing benefits. Therapists consider it a nonverbal form of communication6. Mental health professionals first recognized this form of therapy in the U.S. in the late 1960s.
These practitioners also base art therapy practices on the theory that we cannot verbally access and reproduce all human thought. Sometimes, we need to resort to our pre-verbal instincts involving symbolic language. This Harvard Health article even suggests that people’s ability to create art remains long after their mental ability to create speech is lost. Therefore, art therapy can be used by anyone who still retains their physical ability to participate.
The relationship between the patient and therapist during art therapy is quite delicate. The art creator could be either of both parties. One party establishes a creative environment, and the other is encouraged to explore and understand the situation using art.
Art therapy is not about the perfection of the art. It’s about the mental health benefits we can derive from participating in the art.
Why is Art Good for Mental Health?
Over time, therapists have worked with patients to relieve several types of mental health issues through art creation. Here are some of the benefits of using art for mental health.
Manage mental health disorders
Research suggests that art therapy provides relief from mental health disorders4. Creating art allows individuals to let go of their worries or anxiety and focus on the task ahead. Art therapy is an option for people who experience mental health-related stress symptoms but already take a lot of medication.
In one case report, a dementia patient who was already on several medications was experiencing stress-related symptoms1. He was able to get better by drawing and painting daily. His family revealed that his behavior and communication skills at home also improved.
Manage daily challenges
We encounter stressful events in our everyday lives. Sometimes, these are situations that we cannot avoid. They could include our jobs, parenting, or even traffic on the daily commute. These situations could lead to distress or burnout.
Research suggests that art therapy could be helpful in managing these challenges3. Psychotherapists can effectively treat burnout syndrome using art therapy.
Self-discovery and expression
Art helps people to understand better who they are. Many aspects of therapy involve exploring one’s experiences and seeking the truth. In a way, artistic self-expression pushes us to do the same.
Alison, an art therapist, used art to overcome her personal issues5. For her MSc thesis, she worked with several women who were struggling with self-discovery.
One woman, M, revealed that art has helped her understand the qualities she truly possessed. Regardless of what people might say about her, M no longer feels like their opinion can influence her self-integrity. Art has helped M and several others discover who they truly are.
Art is a safe and healthy outlet to express your fears, insecurities, sadness, anger, and other emotions. Whether you’re creating art or creative writing or you’re finding those benefits in someone else’s creation, the results could be helpful.
Consider our earlier example of Larry, whose therapist painted a perfect representation of his feelings. Larry could see and touch something that represented how he felt for the first time. According to his therapist, that release was one of the steps to his self-improvement and healing process.
Other Applications of Art Therapy
Art therapy is by no stretch limited to acute or recognized mental health illness treatment. Many artists will recognize their art’s role in helping them relax, reflect or express themselves.
Similarly, in professional, home, and educational environments, young people have benefitted from creative expression and visual journaling to help recognize and address their feelings. It can further be used as a means of dealing with stress and aid overall well-being. Furthermore, It has applications across other conditions, such as helping cancer patients come to terms with their diagnosis or helping those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder progress through to recovery.
Organizations Involved in Art and Mental Health
While therapists primarily practice art therapy, other ways exist to expose more people to the benefits. Not everyone can afford the therapy which they need. Some groups now provide a way for the people within their communities to participate in art therapy and realize the benefits of artistic expression.
Here are three organizations doing good work with art and mental health.
Wolf + Water
Wolf + Water is a “diverse bunch” of artists who work on personal skills and community-building projects. They make it clear that their members come and go, but if you hang around long enough, you’ll eventually run into everyone.
Over the past few years, Wolf + Water has worked on several art projects for people with different needs. They include people with learning difficulties, people with life-threatening illnesses, people with mental health issues, and people with intercultural issues or refugees. They also work with people who have struggled with personality disorders or offending behavior.
This arts company uses visual arts, drama, theatre, dance, music, film, and digital media to engage its novice artists. The Wolf + Water studio is located in Devon, England.
Whole Village Art Therapy
Whole Village Art is concerned about removing the barriers to mental health services in New Orleans. The board president, L. Bartlett, spent 44 years in the field of education. He worked with children in underserved neighborhoods for most of that time.
Whole Village Art lends their support by organizing and providing free art therapy sessions to people in need. Their primary focus is the children in their communities.
Whole Village Art currently offers individual and group art therapy, school-based art therapy services, counseling, community art-making, and professional development. Some of their recent events include therapeutic art-making for adults, community art-making for families, and art-making for children at a sensory-friendly museum.
American Art Therapy Association
The American Art Therapy Association, or AATA, is a professional trade body working with mental health and medical professionals already working with art therapy or looking to learn more and become involved. They champion progressing the profession and, as such, have a wide range of resources, creative practices, and a community of art therapists sharing knowledge.
If you’re looking to work in art therapy, check them out below:
We can all enjoy the benefits of art whether we have a mental health-related diagnosis or not. Thankfully, creating art for your mental health requires no art degree. All you need is some art materials, which can be as simple as a pencil and paper.
Of course, as humans, we all have an endless resource of innate creativity. All you need to do is give yourself permission to be creative. Art and mental health will easily go hand-in-hand for you once you allow yourself this freedom.
And by all means, if you’re a professional in the space, please do share your experiences of art and mental health in the comments below. We hope the two cases have inspired you, and we hope to feature more over the coming months.