Art therapy and mental health

Art is a great way for people to express themselves and allow themselves to be creative and use their imagination. It can also be very helpful for those dealing with mental and other health problems. It may sound like something for those with artistic talents or for children, but it can be useful for all sorts of people with a variety of therapeutic goals and needs.

There are many types of art and many types of art therapy. Most of the time when people talk about art therapy they mean the visual arts. This includes painting, drawing, sculpting, or making collages. Other arts like music, dancing, and writing are usually their own types of therapy separate from art therapy. Usually, art therapy includes working with a therapist who is trained to help lead either in a group or individually. Sometimes these therapists work with doctors to help use the sessions to explain the symptoms and feelings of people who may struggle to communicate verbally with doctors. This can help doctors know what a person is struggling with if they are unable to communicate verbally or talk about difficult things directly, allowing for a more accurate diagnosis and treatment.

Art therapy can benefit a lot of people dealing with a wide range of challenges. Art therapy has been shown to help those dealing with depression, anxiety, dementia, autism, post-partum depression, schizophrenia, and those dealing with emotional or difficult events like cancer treatments or losing a loved one.

While there have been hundreds of studies on the effectiveness of art therapy, they are usually relatively small studies over 4 to 12 weeks. Here is what the science shows:

  • Those with depression consistently reported an improvement in symptoms after several sessions of art therapy. This was shown in children, adults, and the elderly.
  • Individuals going through an acute psychotic episode with depression showed greater emotional awareness.
  • Those dealing with anxiety either from an anxiety disorder or for those undergoing long term medical treatment for things like cancer, reported an improvement in anxiety symptoms and a general improvement in mood and quality of life after participating in art therapy.
  • Those dealing with schizophrenia showed significant improvement in social functioning as well as better self-efficacy when done in group settings. And many of those who participated in art therapy individually or in a group setting showed a decrease in the severity of their symptoms and/or a reduction in depressive themes, as well as an increase in self-confidence.
  • Those dealing with autism showed more adaptive behaviors and emotions.
  • Women dealing with postpartum depression reported improved depression symptoms after 12 weeks. In one study 8 out of the 10 participants also reported improved connection with their children.
  • Those dealing with dementia and Alzheimer’s showed a reduction in stress which improved stress related symptoms. Art therapy is also useful for showing caregivers and doctors the severity of cognitive impairment of those dealing with dementia and Alzheimer’s, and is sometimes used during the diagnostic process. Some studies also showed a general improvement in quality of life for those with Alzheimer’s.
And generally, art therapy has been shown to improve self-esteem and enable individuals with difficulty verbally explaining symptoms or events, either due disability or trauma, express their emotions and symptoms to their health care teams.

Art therapy has been shown to benefit people of all ages with a wide range of problems. It can be done in groups or individually. Once or twice a week over several weeks is usually the recommendation. Some people start to see improvement in symptoms and self-esteem after the first session and for others it might take weeks until they see improvements. Art therapy is beneficial for people wanting to improve their symptoms, improve self-esteem, and reduce stress. It is often used in conjunction with talk therapy and medication depending on what a person’s needs are.

Author: Kellen Olivia Kiisler

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