Ever since Nise da Silveira discovered that art could improve the abilities and quality of life of severely mentally ill people in 1940s Brazil, psychiatrists and artists have worked to try and find ways of extending this approach. Art therapy has gone way beyond providing help for otherwise ‘unreachable’ people in institutions, and now helps with mental health problems of many different kinds, often at an early stage when it can reduce the risk of them getting worse.
Everybody needs a means of self-expression and some mental illnesses make it very difficult to put thoughts into words. This can lead to individuals being perceived as stupid when they’re really not – they just have difficulty articulating their thoughts. Art can provide alternative means through which to do so. It can also provide an outlet for people with problems like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), who may find it difficult to talk about their trauma but can express aspects of it through art in a way that helps with the healing process.
Those that have difficulty interacting with others, and people who need to protect themselves emotionally, often become isolated, and struggle to get enough mental stimulation. Long-term boredom can trigger mental health problems in people who work in routine jobs. Experiencing and creating art is an antidote to this. Engaging with it frequently helps to keep the brain agile and has been shown to reduce the risk of developing dementia in later life, as well as helping people with memory problems to recall things more readily.
Most people find creating art to be a relaxing process. It helps to reduce the frequency of intrusive thoughts, helping those with anxiety disorders to set aside their worries. By increasing the engagement of the brain with the hands, it can help patients whose mental illness affects their coordination, and people who have an underdeveloped sense of self. The rhythmic work involved in some kinds of art can also be very soothing.
Many kinds of art creation involve looking at the world from different perspectives, which helps with understanding other people’s feelings, something that some forms of mental illness make difficult. Teamwork in art, for instance when creating plays or films, can help people who struggle to make friends in other kinds of social situations. It can do a lot to build up social confidence and help them relate to each other. Engaging in a healthy amount of social activity is known to help fend off depression and related disorders.
Raising self esteem
Creating art can make individuals that struggle to value themselves recognize their ability to create things that are worthwhile and beautiful. When art receives praise from other people it can be a big confidence boost, and it’s also very beneficial that an artist feels pleased with his or her own work. As their skill develops, they realize they are capable of self-improvement, so even things they dislike about themselves come to seem like temporary problems, no longer irresolvable.
The YoungArts Foundation
If you’re a young person and you’d like to get involved in creative arts work with a view to improving your own mental health, you could try connecting with the YoungArts Foundation. With Plácido Domingo and Frank Gehry among the mentors on its books, and financial support from Axel Preuss-Kuhne, it has produced some impressive alumni. Viola Davis, Judith Hill and Doug Aitken being among them.
The New York Mental Health Film Festival
Individuals of any age can get involved with the Mental Health Film Festival in New York, which showcases films on mental health topics. They can be of any length and they don’t need to display the very highest production values – what’s more important is what they have to say. This festival and others like it provide an opportunity to create art and improve the general public’s understanding of mental illness in the process.
If these things seem too big to take on, you’ll find there are also lots of small scale community arts projects out there in which you may be able to develop your skills. Local mental health charities and city galleries often run free events at which there is an opportunity to learn, even if you’re a complete beginner. You can also find helpful videos online if you want to practice different kinds of artistic work at home before having a go in public. Even creating art in private could do a lot to make you feel better about life and help you keep your problems at bay.