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.