It has long been known that the act of creating can be very therapeutic. For centuries people have used art as a means of creativity, expression, identity and reflection. Art has been shown to help people of all ages and many different illnesses, alleviating symptoms from depression to dementia. Art as a form of therapy was first developed in the 20th century and has gained in popularity in recent years.
From my own personal experience, art and creativity has been one of the few things that I can utilise to regulate and express my inner most feelings. Having a space where I could lose myself even for just a moment in the brushstrokes or pencil lines of whatever I was creating was invaluable. Growing up, it was one of the only spaces where I could actually express my own emotions. Now, even though art is my job, I still use it to quiet my mind and express myself. It sounds cliche to say, since most artists say something similar, but there really is a tiny piece of me in everything I create.
When life gets too much and my anxiety goes out of control, art calms me and soothes me. Creating, drawing and painting relaxes me and gives me something positive to focus on. Sometimes even just using a colouring book is enough to bring me back to a place of peace. When my depression flares up and I find it impossible to do anything, the first thing that brings me back to balance is doodling and painting. I use art to manage my mental health the way that some people use crisps as a snack - that is at least once a day but more if necessary.
According to the British Association of Art Therapists, art can be used as a "mode of expression and communication," which allows people a safe space to acknowledge and accept difficult emotions. It is not necessary to have any prior experience in art because the art is being used as a medium for mindful healing and is not the primary focus. As a kind of psychotherapy, art therapy can treat people from all age groups, from children to the elderly, and with a complex variety of diagnoses: including "emotional, behavioural or mental health problems, learning or physical difficulties, life-limiting conditions, neurological conditions and physical illnesses." It is important to bear in mind that while research does point towards improved mental health as a result of art therapy, these studies had small numbers of people in them and so cannot be considered definitive. For conclusive evidence of the impact of art therapy on mental health more research is needed.
In the late 1700’s, patients of psychiatric wards began to be subjected to 'moral treatment.' This was the beginning of psychotherapies and psychiatric therapies. The term "art therapy" wasn't created until 1942 by British artist Adrian Hill who documented his development and employment of art therapy in this 1945 book, Art Versus Illness. The British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT) was founded in 1964. Art therapy, along with arts therapy which includes drama and music, evolved out of psychotherapy and used a psychoanalytic approach to interpret symbolic meaning within the art created by the patient. While this analysis isn't always a component of art therapy anymore, there are many variants of the approach used by the therapist: "person-centered, cognitive, behaviour, Gestalt, narrative, Adlerian and family"; all of which use "humanism, creativity, reconciling emotional conflicts, fostering self-awareness, and personal growth." The art therapist chooses an approach, and related activities, based on each patient. They vary each patients' therapy to account for age, mental state, or diagnosis. "They use the creative process to help their clients increase insight, cope with stress, work through traumatic experiences, increase cognitive, memory and neurosensory abilities, improve interpersonal relationships and achieve greater self-fulfillment."
Art has been used as an escape from illness for centuries. Frida Kahlo is a perfect example of this; she took up painting after a tram accident rendered her immobilised in hospital for months on end with nothing to do but be in pain. Kahlo's strong use of symbolism helped her to communicate her emotional and mental state to the outside world - many of her paintings depict her being trapped in her body, experiencing pain all over, and even her anxieties about her infertility following the accident. She famously said in response to her artwork being labelled as surrealist that she never painted her dreams, only her realities. As Kahlo shows, art can help to express emotions which can be hard to verbalise.
Studies conducted in hospitals have shown that patients who participated in arts programs had "better vitals and fewer complications sleeping." Similar studies have found that even simply having a landscape picture on the wall in hospital rooms had a "reduced need for narcotic pain killers and less time in recovery at the hospital." The care providers around each patient were also affected positively by the presence or creation of art.
One such study which focused on female cancer patients who took part in creative activities such as pottery and painting found that using visual art helped in four major ways. "First, it helped them focus on positive life experiences, relieving their ongoing preoccupation with cancer. Second, it enhanced their self-worth and identity by providing them with opportunities to demonstrate continuity, challenge, and achievement. Third, it enabled them to maintain a social identity that resisted being defined by cancer. Finally, it allowed them to express their feelings in a symbolic manner, especially during chemotherapy."
Art therapy has even been used to treat victims of traumatic experiences such as natural disasters. Creating art to express their feelings regarding their experiences allowed therapists to evaluate distress and risk for PTSD while also helping to "normalise feelings, model coping skills, promote relaxation skills, establish a support network, and increase a sense of security and stability." Children who suffered trauma benefited from group art therapy where they were encouraged to connect with others who shared similar experiences and process their experiences together. By gradually encouraging children to process their trauma, associated symptoms such as nightmares were reduced. Art therapy has been shown to aid the healing process of people suffering with an eating disorder as it allows them a safe way to exert control over their selves, establish boundaries and express emotions.
According to Psychology Today, art therapy helps people of all ages "explore their emotions, improve self-esteem, manage addictions, relieve stress, improve symptoms of anxiety and depression, and cope with a physical illness or disability." Art therapy has been employed in a range of environments such as "private counseling, hospitals, wellness centers, correctional institutions, senior centers and other community organisations."
The artwork produced during art therapy sessions can be used as a stepping stone into the unconscious mind, allowing thoughts, feelings, memories and experiences which may have been suppressed to come forward. "Art therapy is founded on the belief that self-expression through artistic creation has therapeutic value for those who are healing or seeking deeper understanding of themselves and their personalities."