The Therapeutic Effects of Art on Mental Health

“Elliott Johnson is working on an illustration that could be used in a magazine. He tells me he has recently sold two paintings at an art exhibit. Barry Senft is “experimenting,” he says, with a geometric design, although usually he paints portraits. Phillip Clark creates his own action heroes. Today he is drawing “Princess Powergal.” Everette Ball, who usually prefers inanimate objects, is drawing eyes today. Paul Kordas is working on a painting of a religious figure using very strong colors and a form of chiaroscuro that he tells me he has borrowed from Rembrandt” (Friedman, 2).  These descriptions do not refer to the habits of professional artists or design students.  They’re descriptions of mental health patients engaging in art therapy at a cultural program in New York.  This kind of rehabilitation is incredibly positive for people with mental illnesses, and has the power to combat the negative stigma attached to their conditions.  In this paper I will attempt to show how art therapy activities can change the way people with mental illnesses participate in and are perceived by larger society.

The International Art Therapy Alliance defines its practice as “the deliberate use of art-making to address psychological and emotional needs. Art therapy uses art media and the creative process to help in areas such as, but not limited to: fostering self-expression, enhancing coping skills, managing stress, and strengthening a sense of self” (Art Therapy and Mental Health).  As social-work professor Michael Friedman explains, “art can help a person reach into largely unconscious parts of the mind and experience dimensions of self otherwise buried and voiceless. It can also help a person get a handle on emotions that are, to borrow a word from T.S. Eliot, “undisciplined,” and therefore inarticulate.”  He goes on to explain that “much of the time spent working at art is practice rather than creative discovery (perspiration rather than inspiration), and practice, of course, is essential for building skill, which is itself a source of great satisfaction. Doing art also connects the person doing it with other artists and with audiences. It is, or at least can be, a source of important friendships” (Friedman).  Connection with other people, self-expression, stress management, and building self-esteem through artwork and creativity allow people with mental illnesses to gain the confidence necessary for participation in everyday society.

A great example of a program that utilizes these positive effects of art therapy with mental illness is the the HAI Art Studio, “a non-profit arts and social service organization, the mission of which is “to inspire healing, growth and learning through engagement in the arts for the culturally underserved in New York City.” It provides access to the arts for about 350,000 people each year.”  One participant, Ioan Taralesca, “is working on color drawings for the fall show,” but he also shows “psychological drawings from a ‘darker period’ that integrate geometric, abstract, and realistic images, some of them toys, such as a teddy bear, with words such as ‘I am afraid’ and ‘Fear of crowds’.”  As Friedman points out, “in our society it is not easy for people with mental illness to find opportunities to engage and immerse themselves in activities they find meaningful, to experience a sense of accomplishment, and to be part of a community of shared interest and mutual concern” (Friedman, 2).  Programs like the HAI Art Studio, that allow people like Taralesca to articulate their own psychological processes and practice interacting with others, are extremely important in a culture where people with mental illnesses are normally associated with negative stigma such as horror movies about ‘insane asylums’ rather than being perceived as capable of participating in the safe, ‘productive’ parts of society, like work or friendship.

This stigma is discussed by Australian psychotherapist, Dr. Chris James, who gives a more scientific account of how art therapy actually helps the psychological processes of people with mental illnesses.  He explains that “art therapy is a very simple process of separating the thinking mind from the observing mind. When we think thoughts, they’re usually fleeting thoughts and we don’t give them a great deal of consideration. Very often we act on those inappropriately.  When we think about our thoughts, then we paint a picture in our mind. Now most people don’t use the observing mind…they don’t need to on a daily basis. But artists do because if artists didn’t use the observing mind, they wouldn’t be able to paint a picture.  So, it makes a very good form of therapy for people who are experiencing mental health problems.”  James makes the argument that “somebody who suffers from a mental illness is often labeled ‘criminal.’ There’s the assumption that they’re going to do something terrible. And of course that generates a lot of fear and it’s quite wrong. When people with mental illness get associated with crime it’s totally inappropriate because if you look at crime across Australia, most of the people who commit crime do not have a mental illness” (James).  So why do we continue to believe that all people with psychological disorders are inherently dangerous and need to be kept away from the rest of society?

Unfortunately, the social stigma that has long surrounded people with mental illnesses has taught us as a community to view them as crazily violent and in need of separation from society, not as people who can learn to manage their symptoms through productive activities like creating art.  The ability to create something and showcase work they can be proud of gives people with mental illnesses the ability to combat this negative stigma about their conditions.  As Friedman argues, “doing art has meaning not just for the individual doing it, but also for a society, for a culture” (Friedman).  Like any other kind of artist, people with mental illnesses can create cultural objects; work that represents the context of the society, culture, and environment in which they live.  Some of the world’s most renowned artists whose work often lives on as a symbol of their culture and time period were known to be psychologically unstable or have a mental illness. For example, Vincent Van Gogh’s “extreme enthusiasm and dedication to religion and art coupled with the feverish pace of his art production lead many to believe that mania was a prominent condition in Van Gogh’s life” (Van Gogh’s Mental and Physical Health).  From the projects of people at the HAI Art Studio, to the intense images of Van Gogh, it is clear that people with psychological disorders have the ability to produce valuable work for their societies through creative activities like art.

So how do we convince people to believe in this productive ability of those with mental illnesses? How do we eradicate the stereotypical negative, violent image people who have of such disorders? Mr. Johnson, a participant at the HAI studio, would answer that “we need more programs like this.  We need people to advocate for more funding so that more and more people with mental illness can have art in their lives and a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”  Another participant agrees, explaining that “because of the stigma about mental illness,” Carmel says, “I get treated like I am not functional in society. Here we are treated like artists, and I feel like an artist, not a mental patient.”

It is important to note that we, as a society, are part of this process.  It is our job to encourage such programs to not only provide a place of treatment for people with mental illnesses, but also to acknowledge that they, as much as any other human being, have the right to participate in activities that allow them to lead fulfilling lives. Friedman articulates this responsibility well, arguing that “there ought to be a public mental health agenda that is not limited to the treatment of mental illnesses, but which also addresses the human potential to live well” (Friedman, 2).  We must transition from simply hoping that people with mental health problems can find treatment and live, to providing them the public resources and opportunities necessary in order to live well.

Works Cited

“Art Therapy and Mental Health.” International Art Therapy Organization. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Dec 2013. <;.

Friedman, Michael. “Art Can Be Good For Mental Health.” Huffington Post. N.p., 06 Jun 2012. Web. 17 Dec 2013. <;.

Friedman, Michael. “Art Helps People Live with Mental Illness.” Huffington Post. N.p., 23 May 2012. Web. 17 Dec 2013. <;.

James, Dr. Chris. “Australian Psychotherapist Discusses Benefits of Art Therapy for People With Mental Illness.” Art Therapy. N.p., 10 Oct 2013. Web. 17 Dec 2013.

“Van Gogh’s Mental and Physical Health.” Van Gogh Gallery. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Dec 2013. <;.

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