This blog post is the first of a 4 part series collaboration between Inspiration Fine Arts & Magnify Wellness.
Written by: Melissa Liu, Sandhya Maddali & Mikaela Brewer
Contributing research author: Mahathi Vinapamula
The link between art and mental health has existed for as long as the first creation of art. Though it may not have occurred in controlled settings like the art therapy of today, artistic expression has been an emotional outlet in some capacity for a long time. Some of the most famous art pieces in the world were created as a method of self-directed therapy. For example, Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night is part of a larger collection that was painted when Van Gogh was a patient in the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in 1889. The dark colors and forceful, swirling brush strokes in the painting are thought to indicate his inner turmoil. Countless other artists have similarly used art to reckon with difficulties in their lives, and among the most famous are Jean-Michel Basquiat, Edvard Munch, and Louise Bourgeois.
Though art therapy was certainly present before the 1940s, people weren’t necessarily aware of it then. Doctors in the 1940s noticed that patients who suffered from mental illness turned towards drawing and painting to express themselves through long, empty hours in psychiatric wards. These trends led to the development of art therapy as a formal practice. The goal of this practice is to combine art (in any medium) and psychotherapy methods to improve mental well-being. Following the creation of a piece of art, the artist is asked to analyze what they’ve crafted and how it makes them feel. This is a puzzle piece of art therapy called projection, which aims to demystify feelings when they can’t be put into words. Additionally, art is widely used by therapists as a component of psychological exams. Tests like the inkblot or Rorschach test show subjects an abstract blot, and based on their interpretation, the test is thought to be able to identify whether the subject is exhibiting mental illness. The Rorschach test has nearly become obsolete nowadays because tests have shown that it has little to no value in predicting what it aims to. Art therapy does have upside, but it has been researched very little, and therefore its effectiveness is often debated.
Though the literature on art therapy is not abundant, there is ample evidence that drawing is beneficial for mental health. Drawing is thought to help manage stress and emotional expression. Drawing can be an outlet to release negative emotions. It can also guide an understanding of negative emotions, associated with anxiety, depression, and mental pain. Drawing can also induce what’s described as a meditative or flow state, which increases serotonin levels in the brain. Artists are known to have increased levels of grey matter due to drawing. In the brain, grey matter, compared to white matter, contains a higher concentration of neuron cell bodies, which produces the grey color (white matter is less dense). The higher this concentration, the higher the density and strength of connections and signals between neurons. This trend suggests a potential link between drawing and healthy, refined cognitive function. Drawing is an activity that has strong evidence to support its benefit to one’s mental health.
Aside from drawing and painting, other forms of creative expression include coloring, collage work and sculpting, among many others. In various forms, art therapy has been used to treat several instances of severe adulthood stress, trauma, depression, eating disorders, anxiety, childhood behavioral complications, learning disabilities, PTSD and relationship tensions. It is important to note that artwork isn’t a replacement for mental healthcare, although there are likely benefits in building a personalized, safe space of creative fluidity.