Art gives us a unique opportunity to express ourselves, as it reveals our most intimate emotions, considerations, fears, and dreams, to the rest of the world. Most people find art relaxing, soothing, and inspiring.
Yet, it turns out that it can offer us much more than many of us hoped for, as scientists suggest that it is an effective way to treat some health issues, solve complex feelings and problems, and find relief.
In a recent report, the World Health Organization’s Regional Office of Europe investigated the potential power of art therapy, ultimately suggesting that it has potent therapeutic effects.
People’s drawings are one of the best ways to reveal their inner preoccupations, so it is no wonder that art has been present in psychotherapy since the advent of the field. Psychotherapists have used it to discover the deep unconscious beliefs of their patients.
Dr. Sheridan Linnell, who runs the Master of Art Therapy course at the University of Western Sydney, says:
“Often creativity helps you to express parts of yourself that are being hidden. Expression through art can be healing in itself, and it can also be a stepping stone for being able to make sense of yourself and express your story to others.”
Therefore, art therapy is not new, but the WHO needed over five decades to address it, and this means that a leading global health power has finally taken notice.
Practically since the advent of their field, psychotherapists have been borrowing from art teachers to help their patients express and resolve their problems. Similarly to the way dreams reveal a lot about someone’s inner preoccupations, the pictures people make reflect their deep, unconscious beliefs.
Interpreting pictures is actually way simpler than you might think. No shamanism involved—people tend to draw pretty much exactly what they’re feeling. If you’re curious, pick up a book on the subject and you’ll be a master art therapist in no time
According to The American Art Therapy Association, art therapy is an approach to mental health that utilizes the process of creating art to improve mental, physical, and emotional health.
Art therapy can use various techniques, such as drawing, painting, coloring, sculpting, or collage.
Yet, art can be beneficial for people who do not have artistic abilities or special talents as well. Some researchers claim that only the presence of art can boost health, and its advantages can be enjoyed by people of all ages.
The WHO report reviews more than 900 art therapy-related studies, and concludes that art does affect physical and mental health.
According to the report, these findings “lend credibility to the assertion that the overall evidence base shows a robust impact of the arts on both mental and physical health.”
According to Girija Kaimal, an associate professor at Drexel University’s creative arts therapies department, the report supports the idea that art can be a powerful therapeutic tool. Yet, she adds that it also has some flaws:
“I think that the fact that this is funded by the World Health Organization, even if it is just the regional office for Europe, lends a lot of heft and credibility. Beyond that, I’m not sure it offers anything for the field of art therapy.”
This report investigates the effects of art in a broad view, both, when creating art, and when consuming art.
The report claims that cultural engagement, such as going out to concerts, museums, or exhibitions, deepens cognitive reserve, but it also suggests that music has calming effects on children during dental visits, and the songs of a choir boosted the mood of patients who suffered stroke-related brain damage.
Kaimal says that this is the main drawback of the report, as in this case, it is impossible to tell how the people who received art “treatments” actually got them, either with the help of licensed professionals, or they just went to a museum, for example.
She adds that “when you don’t specify, you can cause harm because if people go into settings without adequate training and understanding of the population they’re working with, art might not always be the most helpful.”
That’s not to say that experiencing art in a non-therapeutic context isn’t restorative or beneficial, Kaimal notes. But in terms of being able to treat clinical conditions, specificity, she says, is important.
Elin Bjorling, the co-founder of the University of Washington’s Momentary Experience Lab, adds:
“It would be interesting to know when and where which types of art are most successful. Potentially, there are kinds of art that would be inappropriate or not useful for a certain population or in a certain context.”
Bjorling claims that art can provide significant positive effects, especially for teenagers, the age group she works with most closely.
She conducted a pilot study published in the journal Art Therapy, that showed that art programs treated headaches in eight teenage girls. It reduces ab average of seven headaches to four over two weeks, and they also reported feeling less momentary stress.
Bjorling said that she was not surprised by the effects of art, but she was surprised at how strongly the teens took to art as a form of therapy.
“They just picked it up and ran with it. We have teens draw out scenarios in their lives using storyboard-type activities and they seem to really really enjoy it.”
She maintains that the power of art can also be attributed to the fact that it is a restorative, healthy activity that people actually like to do, which is very important, especially with teenagers.
“It speaks to the current culture, where we often don’t use art, we don’t think of using art, and it might be a simple and usable tool for a lot of people. We should think about using it more.”
“There’s a range of ways in which the arts can help. They can be emotional, psychological, physical, spiritual. That’s sort of the strength of the arts: they can be what you need them to be for your health needs.”