What Is Art Therapy
Can art therapy help with mental health issues, e.g. to communicate better, self-expression, overcome stress and explore different aspects of their own personalities?
Art therapy is a form of communication and expression using art media as its primary mode. It is used to address emotional issues which may be confusing and distressing such as behavioural or mental health problems, life-limiting conditions, learning or physical disabilities, neurological conditions and physical illness. Art therapy is used to help people explore emotions, develop self-awareness, cope with stress, boost self-esteem and develop social skills.
Art therapy uses several techniques including painting, drawing, colouring, etc. Activities can be analysed by the individual to see what they have made and how it makes them feel. Art is an expressive language that may help people to look for themes and conflicts that may be affecting their thoughts, emotions and behaviours.
It is not necessary to have artistic ability or special talent to participate in art therapy because the process is not about the artistic value of the work, but rather about finding associations between the creative choices made and the person’s inner feelings. The process is more about reawakening memories and telling stories that may reveal messages and beliefs from the unconscious mind. People of all ages can benefit from it. Some research suggests that just the presence of art can play a part in boosting mental health.
Art therapy can achieve different things for different people. It can be used for counselling by therapists, healing, treatment, rehabilitation, psychotherapy and in the broad sense of the term. It can be used to massage one’s inner self in a way that may provide the individual with a deeper understanding of him or herself.
I find abstract painting is all about the freedom to express anything you want. It’s your painting, it’s your expression and it’s totally up to you to do whatever you like. No rules – as the main objective is to enjoy the process and the feeling of making a painting. There is no right or wrong – it’s yours.
Abstract painting is open to interpretation which makes it very interesting to hear people’s views. Everyone will, most likely, have a different view about the same painting and I think you do not have to understand abstract painting to enjoy the colours and shapes in the painting. It is visual communication that talks to different people in different ways. Many people are put off looking at abstract paintings because they can’t link them to anything that is known to them.
Abstract art is an experience of imagination and emotions.
For ease of use, I am using the phrase “abstract art or painting”, but I really mean “non-representational art or painting”. In the art industry, there is a difference between the two phrases taking into consideration the actual definition of the word “abstract”.
Art and Coronavirus Lockdown
COVID-19 has closed museums and art galleries and cancelled concerts, plunging many cultural institutions globally into uncertainty and immediate financial loss and also threatening long-term effects on the arts.
During coronavirus lockdown, restrictions and self-isolation many people have turned to the arts. Perhaps they seek a creative outlet or opportunity for expression, but it is also possible that their attraction may be driven by an innate desire to use their minds in ways that make them feel good.
Many people became more aware of art and its contribution to our wellbeing during COVID-19 lockdown. Art has become more central to our lives, whether we realise it or not.
Most people never believed that they had the skill to create fantastic artwork until they discovered their hidden talents owing to the lockdown and facing a great deal of spare time.
The coronavirus created countless wonderful artworks – art will survive through all disasters and so will people too.
History of Art Therapy
People have been relying on the arts to communicate, express themselves, and heal for thousands of years. However, art therapy did not start to become a formal programme until the 1940s.
Doctors noted that individuals suffering from mental illness often expressed themselves in drawings and other artworks, which led many to explore the use of art as a healing strategy. Since then, art has become an important part of the therapeutic field and is used in some assessment and treatment techniques.
Art therapy can be used to treat a wide range of mental health issues and psychological distress. In many cases, it might be used in conjunction with other psychotherapy techniques such as group therapy or cognitive-behavioural therapy.
Some situations in which art therapy might be utilised include:
- Individuals experiencing severe stress
- Children suffering from behavioural or social problems at school or at home
- Children or adults who have experienced a traumatic event
- Children with learning difficulties
- Individuals suffering from brain injury
- People experiencing mental health problems
While research suggests that art therapy may be beneficial, some of the findings on its effectiveness are mixed. Studies are often small and inconclusive, so further research is needed to explore how and when art therapy may be most beneficial.
How Art Therapy Works
People often wonder how an art therapy session differs from the average art class. Where an art class is focused on teaching techniques or creating a specific finished product, art therapy is more about letting clients focus on their inner experience.
In creating art, people are able to focus on their own perceptions, imagination, and feelings. People are encouraged to create art that expresses their inner world more than making something that is an expression of the outer world. Art, in itself, is a powerful tool that can evoke and influence our moods. Art touches and links directly with our emotions and feelings, rather than our analytical mind. (Have a look at this article for more details: “Is Abstract Painting Really Good for Mental Healthcare“.
Because art therapy allows people to express feelings on any subject through creative work rather than with speech, it is believed to be particularly helpful for those who feel out of touch with their emotions or feelings. Individuals experiencing difficulty discussing or remembering painful experiences may also find art therapy especially beneficial.
The Magic of Art
Being creative in a safe, therapeutic environment can be revitalising and may help lift moods. The sense of freedom and lack of judgement that is felt within art therapy can be cathartic and unique when compared to other more traditional forms of psychotherapy.
By creating art and exploring creativity in a therapeutic environment with the support of a trained professional, people can have the space to explore and understand complicated feelings, uncover new ways of expressing themselves and focus on how they can communicate in ways other than with words.
Putting paint to paper is one of the purest forms of art and allows people an immense amount of freedom. Being faced with a blank canvas that may be intimidating at first is probably one of many challenges people may come across – even professional artists.
With painting people can use bright, vivid colours or more muted, dark colours to help represent what they are feeling or would like to say. Painting skill or talent is not necessary as it is all about deeply engaging in the process itself much more than thinking about the end result of the painting.
Crayons or chalk
Allowing people to blend and create unique effects, many people like to use crayons and chalk in art therapy. Crayons may also instil happy memories as they often represent experiences from childhood.
Typically using clay or some other pliable material, sculpting 3D models can help bring emotions to life. People can also work with duller colours if they find bright hues too stimulating. Much of sculpting involves trial and error, so it is an excellent exercise to freely experiment with different concepts and materials.
Drawing or illustrating
People may feel happier with a simple pen or pencil to draw what comes to mind. Again, if they want to, they can add colour and shading with different coloured pens and pencils.
For some people, the simplicity of taking a photograph is more appealing than drawing or painting. Use a camera to capture parts of one’s life – things people may find beautiful, things they wish they could change or even pictures of friends and family.
For many years, I was fascinated by photography and I spent almost all my spare time developing my skills in photography. It is an extremely rewarding and satisfying activity and I do miss it.
Mental health issues affect nearly half of the global population, at some point, by age 40. Add to that, the recent challenges of the pandemic for maintaining mental wellness and managing fears and uncertainty, and one thing is clear: it is time to think differently when it comes to how we engage our minds.
The arts offer an evidence-based solution for promoting mental health. While practising the arts is not the panacea for all mental health challenges, there is enough evidence to support prioritising arts in our own lives at home as well as in our education systems.
The relationship between the arts and mental health is well established in the field of art therapy, which applies arts-based techniques (like painting, dancing and role play) as evidence-based interventions for mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. There is also growing evidence that the arts can be used in non-therapy contexts for promoting mental health, such as using performing arts to learn about the core subject areas in schools or doing visual art with adults who are mentally well and want to sustain that sense of wellness.
In other words, practising the arts can be used to build capacity for managing one’s mental and emotional well-being.
Mindfulness and flow
The arts have also been found to be effective tools for mindfulness, a trending practice in schools that is effective for managing mental health.
Being mindful is being aware and conscious of your thoughts and state of mind without judgement. The cognitive-reflective aspects of the arts, in addition to their ability to shift cognitive focus, make them especially effective tools for mindfulness. Specifically, engaging with visual art has been found to activate different parts of the brain other than those taxed by logical, linear thinking; and another study found that visual art activated distinct and specialised visual areas of the brain.
In short: the arts create conditions for mindfulness by accessing and engaging different parts of the brain through the conscious shifting of mental states. For those of us who practise regularly in the arts, we are aware of those states, able to shift in and out and reap the physiological benefits through a neurological system that delights in and rewards cognitive challenges. Neuroesthetic findings suggest this is not an experience exclusive to artists: it is simply untapped by those who do not practise in the arts.
Research shows that the arts can be used to create a unique cognitive shift into a holistic state of mind called flow, a state of optimal engagement first identified in artists, that is mentally pleasurable and neurochemically rewarding.
There is a wealth of studies on the relationship between the arts, flow and mental health, and flow-like states have been connected to mindfulness, attention, creativity and even improved cognition.
Colour theory is the idea that the colours a person is surrounded with can influence the person’s health – whether physical or mental. Colour psychology is based on the idea that the colours a sighted person is exposed to can influence that person’s emotions and even the individual’s health.
In colour theory, every colour, from white to black and everything in between, influences how a person thinks, acts and responds to various stimuli in their world.
Colour theory is used in a variety of industries to influence the way individuals behave and think in those environments. In healthcare, colour theory is used to create environments that feel safe, healing and inspiring. Colour theory is commonly used in hospital design to encourage:
- Patient healing and motivation
- Facility efficiency and efficacy
- Healthcare staff motivation and efficiency
As an example, hospital settings are often decorated in soothing, cool colours, such as pale blue and green. This is thought to foster a relaxing environment that enables rest, encouraging faster healing.
The use of colour to help people heal goes back to the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Chinese. All of them used colour to try to affect the mental states of people through the colours used to decorate rooms, the incorporation of natural colours to induce a calm state and the use of light to balance mental states.
In fact, for at least one condition – seasonal affective disorder, or SAD – research has shown that light therapy can help to mitigate the depression and anxiety caused by the disorder.
Similarly, it is believed that different colours can induce specific emotional or mental states that can change the mood, the level of anxiety or the individual’s perception of a situation.
It is worth noting that while colour therapy is still used in a variety of applications, there is a lot of evidence from research that it does not have the effects attributed to it. The effect of colour remains subjective based on personal and cultural experiences.
Nevertheless, colour may affect individuals within the cultural context, making the idea of colour therapy valid while still requiring it to be based on the individual’s cultural background. More research is required before the validity of colour therapy is acknowledged. That said, if an individual feels motivated or encouraged by the use of colour therapy, the values of individual impact should not be ignored.
Why is art important?
Somebody recently asked me Why is art important? I believe this article qualifies to answer part of the question. Art, in its different forms, is an integral element of our existence.
I have no doubt in my mind that the answer to the question of can art therapy help mental health issues is yes it can. It may take time and may depend on each individual’s circumstances.