Art Therapy: An Under-Valued Method of Increasing Mental Wellbeing

The complexity and subjectivity of emotion makes it a difficult topic when it comes to communication. Within the realms of mental wellbeing, it is therefore critical that people have methods of emotional exploration and a way of conveying how they feel to others, to increase empathy and understanding. Artistic representations of thought and feeling can be used to express emotionality when words fail.

Art as a means of communication has been used for thousands of years. Evidence of artistic expression has been discovered in many ancient cultures, evidenced by the Navajo sand paintings of Native American tribes or early sculptures which have been found across the African continent. But artistic expression is not simply a beneficial component of ancient cultures, its therapeutic effects have been registered in our contemporary world. Pioneering individuals such as Edward Adamson and Sheridan Russell, have highlighted the importance of bringing art to patients in hospitals to humanise clinical environments. Their collections: the ‘Adamson Collection’ and ‘Paintings in Hospitals’ are still important today and are used to alleviate stress and increase mental wellbeing. Art exhibitions in the TATE modern, such as ‘Arts in Health: Recovery and Wellbeing with Vital Arts’, and innovative art galleries such as the ‘SHARP’ have increased the understanding of the relationship between art and wellbeing. Grayson Perry, an influential contemporary artist, states that art is inextricably linked to emotional wellbeing, noting “psychotherapy has been the experience that has most influenced my subsequent work”. More recently, Bethlem Museum of the Mind has started a participatory artwork that will depict personal experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic, to record the societal impact on physical and mental health.

Artistic mediums can be used in therapeutic approaches. Art therapy sessions involve a trained professional working with an individual to address emotional issues using art media such as painting, drawing, sculptures, digital art or photography. The sessions allow individuals to resolve complicated emotions, improve perceptions of the self and reconnect people to their memories so that they can reconstruct their own narratives. Art and wellbeing doesn’t always take this clinical and structured form. Many people take part in therapeutic art, such as drawing and colouring in books, an easily accessible form of relaxation and emotional exploration that can have positive effects on mental wellbeing.

Art has had a major influence on my own wellbeing. When COVID-19 hit, and the first lockdown began, I felt lost and overwhelmed. I experienced intense emotions in ways I hadn’t before, a feeling I’m sure many can relate to. The thought of having to explain my thoughts, which were complex and confusing, bewildered me, and I felt that I couldn’t communicate how I felt to anyone. Then, I picked up a paintbrush. In normal life, finding the time to paint was difficult, but being thrown into a lockdown meant that I had ample time to engage in my own artistic journey. I painted a variety of subjects and used a range of different artistic mediums. Creating art is a mindful act. When I put paint to paper, I think about nothing else apart from what I am creating and how the colours merge and blend together. As I continued to make more art my emotions started to make more sense and I felt more in control of myself. Painting isn’t for everyone but finding your own form of emotional outlet can have profound changes on the way you think and feel.

Art and wellbeing are intertwined. At present, there is a great focus on social prescriptions to improve wellbeing, such as physical exercise, but the prescription of arts and culture for mental health is lacking. Without realising it, society is already shifting towards the therapeutic art process. During times of the national lockdown due to COVID-19, people have shown their own forms of artistic expression such as creating signs outside their homes to thank essential workers and arts and crafts became common trends to reduce feelings of isolation and boredom. As lockdown starts to ease, it is crucial that society continues to engage with the therapeutic process as the impact of COVD-19 on wellbeing will be long lasting.

Art can have far-reaching positive effects on wellbeing but also the ability to change mental health practice.

Emma Fry

Featured Image Source: Emma Fry

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