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 diagnoses we know today were not clinically recognized. Today, mental health professionals not only possess a better understanding of their patients’ illnesses, but they sometimes use art in communicating with their patients.
An example is Terry Rustin, a psychotherapist who uses art to connect with his patients1. He listens as they describe how they feel, 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 better understand 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, which eventually leads to better results from psychotherapy.
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 bi-polar 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 practising 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.
Practitioners base art therapy on the idea that the creative process of art making provides healing and life-enhancing benefits. Therapists consider it as a nonverbal form of communication6. This form of therapy was first recognized in the U.S. in the late 1960s.
These practitioners also base art therapy practices on the theory that we cannot access and reproduce all human thought verbally. 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 that can be derived from participating in the art.
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.
Research suggests that art therapy provides relief from mental health disorders3. Creating art allows an individual 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 symptoms2. He was able to get better by drawing and painting daily. His family revealed that his behaviour and communication skills at home also improved.
We encounter stressful events in our everyday lives. Sometimes, these are situations which 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 challenges4. Psychotherapists can effectively treat burnout syndrome using art therapy.
Art helps people to better understand who they are. Many aspects of therapy involve exploring one’s experiences and seeking the truth. In a way, art 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 other people to 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 you’re finding those benefits in someone else’s creation, the results could be helpful.
Think of our earlier example of Larry, whose therapist painted a perfect representation of his feelings. For the first time, Larry could see and touch something that represented how he felt. According to his therapist, that release was one of the steps to his self-improvement.
While art therapy is primarily practised by therapists, there are other ways 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.
Here are two organizations doing good work with art and mental health.
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 behaviour.
This arts company uses visual arts, drama, theatre, dance, music, film and digital media to engage their novice artists. The Wolf + Water studio is located in Devon, England.
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 neighbourhoods 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, counselling, community art making, and professional development. Some of their recent events include therapeutic artmaking for adults, community artmaking for families, and artmaking for children at a sensory-friendly museum.
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.
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.
TRVST features a handful of innovative impact projects working with mental health. As such, they all work to support people and raise awareness of mental health issues. In 2018 we assisted bringing the amazing AHEAD Mental Health Art Exhibition to London. Italian charity Angela Azzuro founded the exhibition. We were thrilled to support a packed event. The exhibition featured the work of artists working to improve schizophrenia or deal with substance abuse.
In addition, Rob Stephenson, another early TRVST changemaker, founded Inside Out. Inside Out builds on Rob's own experience of Bi-polar disorder. Today, he continues to work tirelessly to stamp out the stigma around mental health.
Check them all out - they're brilliant! Of course, if you have an innovative project related to mental health that you'd like to feature on TRVST please do get in touch.
|Rustin TA. Using artwork to understand the experience of mental illness: Mainstream artists and Outsider artists. Psychosoc Med. 2008;5:Doc07. Published 2008 Jul 8.|
|Mimica, Ninoslav & Kalinić, Dubravka. (2011). Art therapy may be benefitial for reducing stress - Related behaviours in people with dementia - Case report. Psychiatria Danubina. 23. 125-8.|
|Mccaffrey, Ruth & Liehr, Patricia & Gregersen, Thomas & Nishioka, Reiko. (2011). Garden Walking and Art Therapy for Depression in Older Adults: A Pilot Study. Research in gerontological nursing. 4. 237-42. 10.3928/19404921-20110201-01.|
|Italia, S. , Favara‐Scacco, C. , Di Cataldo, A. and Russo, G. (2008), Evaluation and art therapy treatment of the burnout syndrome in oncology units. Psycho‐Oncology, 17: 676-680. doi:10.1002/pon.1293|
|The Art of the True Self: Using Art Therapy as a Means of Self-Discovery. Kilpo, Alison M. Univesity of Wisconsin|
|Nguyen, Minh-Anh. (2015). Art Therapy – A Review of Methodology. 4. 29-43.|