11 March, 2021
Mental health is among the leading health issues facing present society, and this has undoubtedly been aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which enhanced contributing factors such as loneliness and uncertainty about the future. Throughout previous decades, medical professionals have developed various psychological and psychiatric therapies to help those suffering with mental illness cope. One such form of psychotherapy is art therapy, which began in the 1940s (it was officially recognised as a profession in 1991) and uses art as the main form of expression and communication. It supports the theory that art and creativity are powerful tools for improving health and wellbeing, but what exactly is the relationship between art and mental health? Does art really have the power to ‘heal’?
Throughout history, cultures worldwide have used creative expression, such as singing, dancing and drawing, as healing rituals. We can even trace the notion of art therapy back to the Ancient Egyptians, who encouraged people with mental illness to engage in artistic activities. In Ancient Rome, dance and imagination were even proposed as an essential part of wellbeing for all individuals. There has been much discussion about the healing power of the arts by philosophers and much evidence that past civilizations relied on it, but empirical research in this domain has been lagging behind. It is only recently that systematic and controlled studies have begun to examine the therapeutic effects and benefits of art.
According to the British Association of Art Therapists, ‘art is not used as a diagnostic tool but as a medium to address emotional issues which may be confusing and distressing’. It gives people who are suffering from a mental illness a way to express that which they find difficult to put into words, and in some cases, communicate as well as confront their grief. One example of this, mentioned in Stuckey and Nobel’s ‘The Connection Between Art, Healing and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature’, is in people diagnosed with cancer who ‘explore the meanings of past, present and future during art therapy, thereby integrating cancer into their life story and giving it meaning’. Case studies demonstrate that the use of visual arts in meaning-making for cancer patients distracted thoughts of illness, decreased negative emotions, reduced depression, improved notions of self-worth and even improved medical outcomes, among other findings.
In another case study by Puig et al., as cited in Stuckey and Nobel’s article, examined how complementary creative arts therapy may enhance emotional expression, spirituality and psychological wellbeing in 39 women with Stage 1 and 2 breast cancer. It consisted of four individual therapy sessions conducted over a four-week period. Each session included guided creative arts therapy exercises involving drawing. The study concluded that the art therapy sessions were successful in boosting physical wellbeing in all participants by reducing negative emotions and increasing positive ones.
Additionally, art has been used as a powerful tool to help people cope with stress. The American military, in fact, has long been incorporating art therapy as a core strategy to help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress. According to PTSD UK, art therapy allows the brain to open up differently so that complex feelings may be expressed and people suffering from trauma can learn to confront and visualise it to aid healing.
“Art therapy has been shown to bring together a mind-body connectedness, bi-lateral stimulation, conscious and unconscious mental activity, communication between the limbic system and cerebral cortex functioning, and allow the brain to use mental and visual imagery.” - cited in PTSDUK, ‘How art therapy has helped those with PTSD’
Another study, published by Edward G. Hughes and Alicia Man da Silva (2011), evaluated the effect of art therapy on anxiety, depression and feelings of hopelessness associated with subfertility. It asked 21 subfertile women to take part in two-hour art therapy group courses and examined the effectiveness of the therapy using the Beck Hopelessness, Depression and Anxiety Inventories as well as a qualitative exit questionnaire. The study concluded that the sessions were directly associated with reduced levels of hopelessness and feelings of depression.
Moreover, decades of research have demonstrated that the ability to create art remains long after speech and language have declined in people with progressive neurological diseases, allowing those with, for instance, dementia to reconnect with the world. This extends beyond the visual arts, as the Creative Health Short Report (2017), for example, showed that music therapy reduces agitation and need for medication in 67% of dementia patients.
Following on from this, art is not only a way of treating mental health issues, but also an effective prevention tool. In fact, a 2017 report from the Mayo Clinic Study of Ageing showed that people over the age of 70 who took part in arts and crafts projects had a lower risk of cognitive impairment than those who read books (Harvard Health,‘The healing power of art’, 2017 ). There appears to be a direct correlation between creating art and memory, resilience and reasoning in healthy older people.
The arts are not only essential for individual health and wellbeing but also general society. An art-on-prescription project in the United Kingdom, where people experiencing psychological or physical distress were referred (or referred themselves) to engage with arts in the community (e.g. galleries, museums and libraries), demonstrated a 37% reduction in hospital admissions, representing an average saving of £216 per patient. Moreover, the Creative Health Short Report shows that, after engaging with the arts in their communities and social care settings in London, 79% of people in deprived communities ate healthier; 77% did more physical exercise; and 82% claimed that they enjoyed greater wellbeing. This demonstrates that participation in art is not only a vital part of healthy aging but also key to healthy living.
To conclude, there is still much research to be done in the field of art and healing. However, it has become evident through various case studies that art, whether it be visual art, writing, dance or music, plays an important role in individual health and wellbeing, which is to the greater benefit of overall society. It can serve the purpose of both prevention and treatment by opening up various neurological pathways which liberate expression and communication, allowing people to not only convey what it is that they cannot put into words but to also visually confront their suffering, finding a new identity within it.
All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing Inquiry, ‘Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing’, July 2017, https://www.culturehealthandwellbeing.org.uk/appg-inquiry/Publications/Creative_Health_The_Short_Report.pdf
British Association of Art Therapists, ‘What is art therapy?’, https://www.baat.org/About-Art-Therapy
Edward G. Hughes and Alicia Mann da Silva, NCBI, ‘A pilot study assessing art therapy as a mental health intervention for subfertile women’, January 2011, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21247921/
Harvard Health Publishing, ‘The healing power of art’, July 2017, https://www.health.harvard.edu/mental-health/the-healing-power-of-art
Heather L. Stuckey and Jeremy Nobel, NCBI, February 2010, ‘The Connection Between Art, Healing and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature’, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2804629/
PTSDUK, ‘How art therapy has helped those with PTSD’, https://www.ptsduk.org/how-art-therapy-has-helped-those-with-ptsd/