Art Therapy: Designing Treatments for Mental Health

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The value of art therapy as a stress-relieving creative outlet has long been understood by artists. For centuries, people have engaged in all types of art, from painting and sculpting to music and dance, as a form of self-expression and release. In the 1940s, a British artist named Adrian Hill acknowledged the therapeutic value of painting while he was recovering from tuberculosis. Realizing that the act of creating art engaged in the mind and body in positive ways, he coined the term “art therapy,” and from that point on researchers have been studying the effects of art in healing professions.

Overwhelmingly, the data shows that participation in creative outlets assists patients in recovering not only from physical disorders but from mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety.

What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy employs the use of artistic media in a therapeutic environment to help individuals to overcome the symptoms of their specific disorder. While art therapy usually refers to the act of creating art, which has been shown to provide therapeutic benefits, in the mental health arena art therapy may also be used as a diagnostic tool. Some therapists have their patients create art as a form of self-expression and the evaluation and interpretation of their art are utilized as a method of drilling down the underlying emotional issues. Choice of subject, themes, colors, symbols, and media are all areas for examination that help the therapist reach a diagnosis or construct a treatment plan.

What Does Art Therapy Include?

Adult coloring books have recently gained in popularity, demonstrating a trend towards utilizing the creation of art as part of a self-help plan. The act of coloring is relaxing; after a day of thinking in complex ways at work or dealing with stressful family situations, it’s very soothing to grab a colored pencil or marker and watch a creation appear on the page. While there is some value in individuals creating art on their own as a form of self-therapy, the greatest gains are made by engaging with a licensed art therapist as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

Besides coloring in pre-designed lines with crayons, markers, or colored pencils, there are several other artistic projects that are commonly included in art therapy:

  • Drawings can be made on a variety of surfaces utilizing charcoals, pencils, chalk, or ink.
  • Collages are a very popular form of therapy, as they allow the patient to browse images and sort through them, choosing those that contain a personal connection or message and arranging them in a meaningful way. Collages can be made with computer-generated images, magazines, photographs, or textiles – the options are endless and the medium is simple for those who don’t have a great deal of artistic experience.
  • Woodwork is another form of art therapy with patients at all levels of experience in art. With a canvas and brush, artists use watercolors, acrylics, or oil-based paint to create something intensely personal on a blank surface. Some art therapy studios encourage group painting on large surfaces such as huge drop cloths or even walls, and patients come together to create a group project, which is beneficial for team bonding and opening up channels for communication.
  • Sculpting is another common art therapy medium. Pottery is often taught in elementary school art for a reason: molding a lump of clay into a useful or decorative object and watching its transformation through the glazing, firing, and painting process is metaphorical and extremely therapeutic.
  • Needlework is another effective medium. Crocheting, quilt-making, needlepoint, cross-stitching, and knitting are just a few examples of artwork that also represent the acquisition of a useful skill, a hallmark of the art therapy process.
Erol Ahmed - Unsplash

Erol Ahmed – Unsplash

How Does Art Therapy Work?

The act of creating art has been associated with happiness for centuries. People find joy in the act of creating something beautiful or meaningful from raw materials. Happiness is also gained in the process of acquiring a new skill or improving an existing one. A study out of the University of London shows that viewing art causes an increase in dopamine and stimulation of the brain’s frontal cortex, resulting in positive feelings similar to those experienced from romantic love. Sometimes the fears and negative emotions that result from mental health struggles can be difficult to express verbally, but many patients can utilize artwork to communicate those issues tangibly.

People who engage in art therapy also report that the process of using their negative emotions to create something artistic is a therapeutic and stress-relieving activity.

Zero Take - Unsplash

Zero Take – Unsplash

What Are the Benefits of Art Therapy?

When used as a complement to traditional behavioral therapy, art therapy has been shown to have positive effects for patients experiencing several other artistic projects are issues. Creating art can help with self-discovery, bringing to light important issues that may have been buried in the subconscious. Engaging in art therapy can help improve self-esteem, by increasing aptitude in a specific skill and creating a feeling of accomplishment. Stress, depression, and anxiety can be very damaging both emotionally and physically. Perhaps the greatest therapeutic benefit of art is the release, providing a mental and physical retreat while exercising the creative muscles that are innate in all humans. Art therapy provides a healthy outlet for self-expression, particularly for those who are not comfortable or not able to express themselves verbally.

Who Should Engage in Art Therapy?

Art therapy has been shown to benefit patients dealing with stress, depression, anxiety, and a host of other mental health issues. People dealing with trauma, illness, and loss may also benefit from the therapeutic effects of art therapy.

While the act of engaging in creative art projects will yield important mental health benefits, the true value of art therapy is best realized through collaboration with a licensed art therapist in conjunction with a comprehensive recovery program.

About the author: Andrew Adams is currently a successful Senior Producer with a passion for photography and the arts. He has lived in Everett, Washington for most of his life, and in his spare time, he likes to travel to exotic places, painting, and photography.

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