Art is a relaxing and inspiring activity for many people; however, the benefits of artistic expression can extend much further. Art therapy has shown to be a valuable complement to medication and talk therapy for many forms of mental illness, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the practice of art therapy and discuss its benefits for people struggling with mental illness.
What Is Art Therapy?
Art therapy can be defined in a number of different ways, but the general consensus is that it refers to any application of the visual arts in a therapeutic context1. An art therapy session is led by a credentialed professional who tailors each therapeutic activity to their clients’ unique needs. While drawing and painting are common forms of creative expression in art therapy, many other activities may be included in sessions:
- Sculpting with clay
- Making collages
- Visual journaling, or “art diaries”
- Making dolls
Therapy sessions may be one-on-one, or they may be group activities. Both forms of art therapy have advantages—an individual therapy session can help establish a bond between the client and therapist, and it can be an empowering experience for the client. Group sessions, on the other hand, are excellent for building healthy connections with other people, which can be particularly helpful for clients battling depression.
How Art Therapy Benefits Mental Illness
There are many benefits to using art therapy as a complement to traditional mental health treatment:
- Self-discovery: Art therapy can help clients acknowledge and recognize feelings that have been lurking in their subconscious.
- Self-esteem: The process of artistic creation can instill feelings of self-worth and confidence.
- Emotional release: Art therapy can give clients an outlet for feelings and fears that they may have been unable to express through typical means.
- Stress relief: Creating art can be a powerful stress reliever and relaxation aid.
Studies show that the process of creating art or other crafts stimulates the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is released when you do something pleasurable2.Increased levels of this feel-good chemical can be helpful for people suffering from depression or anxiety.
Promising Results in Mental Illness Treatment
Research evaluating the effectiveness of art therapy as a treatment for mental illness is limited, but the results of a few clinical studies are promising. One study showed that art therapy helped reduce both depression and anxiety in cancer patients; another study measured cortisol levels to confirm that art therapy reduced anxiety and stress in participants3.
Mental health professionals agree that art therapy has many benefits—boosting self-esteem, giving participants a sense of control and providing a safe outlet for difficult emotions. Art therapy is a valuable complement to traditional treatment. The journey of self-discovery that occurs during art therapy can help eliminate emotional roadblocks and make traditional treatment methods work more effectively.