(photography by Jessica Denoia)
“[Art is] the one thing that I know will outlive me and outlive my feelings. It will outlive my depressive seasons”
Art is often an expression of what it means to be human. Rooted in emotion, self-expressive art holds the power to reflect and transform. Art is more than just painting on a canvas. Art is a form of therapy that can help people fight emotional distress and be incredibly useful to people who experience mental illness.
Art Therapy is a Real Practice
Art therapy blends together therapy and art. A session of this practice will include creating art, from painting, drawing, and songwriting to dancing. Then, the therapist will often engage with the patient in a discussion on the creation and its process, subtext, and metaphors, all on a cognitive, psychotherapeutic level (American Art Therapy Association). The therapist might also ask the patient to do exercises such as drawing a picture of yourself, drawing your goals in life, or writing your dearest values. They might just even ask you to create a piece that displays how you are feeling.
Art therapy is used in a variety of places, from hospital and psychiatric units to schools, private practices, and rehabilitation centers (American Art Therapy Association). Art Therapy is also a rising college major and career in the health industry.
Numerous studies have asserted art therapy’s effectiveness. In studies, researchers found that cancer patients who use art therapy experience positive effects, “including decreased symptoms of distress, improved quality of life and perceptions of body image, reduction of pain perception, and general physical and psychological health” (Psychology Today). Art provides a release of bottled up emotions, as well as a more conscious understanding of these emotions. Art can also build connections, inspire collaboration, and forge meaning in your life (NAMI).
Even just consuming awe-inspiring art can have therapeutic benefits. University of Wisconsin Health psychologist Dr. Shilagh Mirgain notes that awe “can be part of the driving force behind new...paradigm-shifting discoveries because we begin to see new possibilities.” Art helps shift perspective and lead the viewer to new discoveries. Being present and connected to a work of art can bring peace to the mind, body, and soul.
Anyone can Be an Artist
Discussing art with Brian McInerney, Green Ribbon Club’s CEO, he says that “art is an extremely subjective medium of expression.” His art? Skateboarding. If you don’t automatically think yourself a “creative” or “artistic” person, it’s okay, you can still be an artist. You might even already be one. Odds are you probably are!
Being an artist doesn’t mean you know how to paint or draw or dance or write. Being an artist means to breathe passion into what you do. Being an artist is to find the richness, beauty, truth, and light within life’s spaces, even if some of the corners of life may cast dark and somber shadows. Being an artist is to be curious and to explore, knowing that you can always look at life with a pair of fresh eyes.
So whatever you do–whether it’s delivering mail, making coffee, practicing medicine, studying law, or planting a garden...know that anything you do can be art.
(photography by Jessica DeNoia)
How Art is a Therapy to Five Real People
We spoke to Zoe, Karen, Lily, and Brian, Aliyah who use art as a therapy in their lives.
What is your art that acts as a therapy?
Zoe: My art is drawing with pencils and sometimes pen.
Karen: Interactive Drawing Therapy (IDT).
Lily: I write songs about what I’m going through.
Brian: My art is skateboarding.
Aliyah: When I’m very stressed out, I watercolor paint and when I’m moderately stressed out, I like to write.
How is art healing?
Aliyah: It gives me time to just be quiet, be myself, focus on one thing. It gives me the opportunity to reflect on my feelings, without feeling like I’m wasting time because I’m creating. I’m figuring out what’s going on with me.
Lily: Being a physical thing, [the emotions are] more outside my head.
Karen: IDT allows me to freely describe through colours without thought of what I'm feeling.
Zoe: It acts as therapy as when I am unable to stop thoughts and feelings running through my head. I am able to focus on the drawing instead of listening to what my mind has going on. I am able to challenge myself to more difficult projects, to switch concentration from my problems to my art.
“Being a physical thing, [the emotions are] more outside my head.”
Brian: If you’re under stress, physical activities are a great way to alleviate that stress. Street skateboarding is comprised of three factors: the skateboard, you, and the obstacle you’re trying to overcome. If you’re lazy, or unwilling to try, you’ll fall or get hurt, so you must be focused and determined to overcome the challenges before you. I know no greater feeling than landing a trick.
Can you tell us about a time where art helped your overall mental health?
Brian: My parents were going through a bad divorce in high school, and I was struggling with depression and anxiety as a result of my worsening OCD. Skateboarding was a release for me. When I was skateboarding, I wasn’t thinking about anything else besides what was in front of me. It was liberating.
Zoe: Art has helped me through my stay in a mental health hospital and has been used as a positive distraction technique as described above. It provides a sense of achievement when a drawing is completed and positive feedback is often received from others (but not necessary in order to feel achievement accomplished).
I am still in a mental health hospital and have recently moved hospitals, so therefore my pencils have initially been taken away from me until I settle in. This has caused some distress to me as I can no longer use the art therapy in my own space. Art therapy is a valued tool for me on my road to recovery.
“It provides a sense of achievement when a drawing is completed.”
(photography by Will D'Epagnier)
Karen: IDT helped me through losing my mother, family, my boyfriend, and a friend who recently died from cancer.
Aliyah: In high school, I used to be really into music. I did chorus and jazz. I was very stressed out applying to colleges so I wrote harmonies to various pop songs. It took me out from a 9 on the anxiety level to a 3.
Lily: When I moved out of Manchester, I put all of the anger, the hurt, and the sadness...the confusion, and everything, and put it into a nine track album and released it. Getting it out there and being a physical thing helped put it in the past (you can find Lily’s music here).
So next time you're experiencing difficult times, remember that art is always there to help you get through it.
“About Art Therapy.” American Art Therapy Association.
Bourassa , Taylor. How Art Can Help Monitor Bipolar Symptoms. National Alliance on Mental Health, 19 Apr. 2016.
Malchiodi, Cathy. “Drawing a Picture of Health: An Art Therapy Guide.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 29 Mar. 2017