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Friday, February 14, 2014

Mental Health and the Healing Power of Art

From Jenni Day
Tree of Life by Lol
 Art therapy has long been used as a tool in physical therapy. Painting, sculpture and collage creation, to name a few art forms, can be used to achieve a plethora of aims, everything from strengthening the pincer grip to sharpening differentiation of colour skills in the visually impaired. Art also bestows palpable benefits on our mental wellbeing and it might have something to do with the innate human need to create. It is thought that artistic expression can be traced back 1.5 million years, when our ancestor, homo erectus, first began using iron oxide pigments to create non-utilitarian visual representations. Art served as a visual representation for humankind’s thoughts and it continues to do so today; throughout history, the value of art has extended beyond the self; it has served as a means through which parents and children can bond, communities can be strengthened and traditions, adorned. Art/art therapy has also proven useful in dealing with an array of mental conditions. These are just a few areas in which art therapy is being used to foster well-being and greater mental health, and to overcome challenging problems like addiction:

  • Art Therapy: fostering an empathetic approach to addiction: Many therapists use art therapy with persons in rehabilitation for substance abuse and other addiction issues, by using creative expression to break down their resistance to the 12-Step programme. Other therapists, however, believe that the best results are obtained, not by confronting a recovering addict regarding denial or resistance, if not by encouraging them to employ artistic creation to find their own motivation to change. Art becomes a means through which a recovering addict can explore their ambivalent feelings towards addiction. Therapist Brian J. Horay, for instance, describes how he used art therapy with a person he was caring for, asking the latter to create a collage which expressed first the ‘pro’s, then the ‘cons’, of not using drugs. Horay notes that the person was initially hesitant to list the ‘cons’ of leaving the world of drugs behind, but soon began to identify important reasons in his collage. By realising that rehabilitation involved giving up many aspects of his addiction that had seemed so attractive to him to begin with, he came to a much more realistic perspective of what the process involved – it would not be so easy as it seemed, yet the ‘pros’ definitely outweighed the ‘cons’.
  • Art therapy and depression: Art is also often used with those suffering from depression, largely because of its immense power to provoke an emotional response. According to Eric Jensen, author of Arts with the Brain in Mind, “Making and observing visual art seems to enhance or ability to elicit and even mediate our emotional responses.” Different types of art (i.e. familiar looking vs. unique art) activate different parts of the brain and once we find something we recognise or find meaningful in a canvas, sculpture or drawing, we are moved in a positive manner. Art helps those who are depressed find positivity, since it distances them from their problems while showing them that there are many different interpretations that can be taken with respect to a situation. Creating art also involves making choices regarding colour, space, texture, etc, which teaches the budding artist that there is always more than one option; there is always more than one solution to even the most burdensome of problems and situations.
  • Art therapy and dementia: Anthropologist, art therapist and psychologist, Dr. Patricia Banes, is renowned for her use of art therapy with persons with dementia. She notes that the remark made by one of her students upon finishing an artwork – “This is more important than eating or sleeping!” – is the starting point for thinking about dementia and creativity. Art therapy, she says, enables those with dementia to transcend their memory loss and see something unfolding before their eyes. It is also an excellent way for various persons with dementia to unite and create something together. Dementia can often cause feelings of intense isolation, so that working together on a painting or drawing can provide a unique opportunity to feel like part of a greater whole.

Green Hat by Grace

Art therapy has been found to bestow many more documented benefits. These include increased positive emotional responses, reduced agitation, an improvement in cognitive processes, greater verbal fluency, functional improvements, increased consumption of food, greater mobility, strength and equilibrium, better moods and attention spans, less stress (for both the carer and the receiver), a better quality of life and a more profound understanding of the human condition. Art will always be one of the most profound means of expression in existence and a powerful way to heal body and mind.

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