Art Therapy for Mental Illness Treatment

Art therapy can be an excellent additional element in a mental illness treatment plan. No artistic talent or skills are needed. It can help adults and children visualize and create on paper thoughts and emotions which can’t be expressed verbally.

Art Therapy

According to the American Art Therapy Association, patients “facilitated by the art therapist, use art media, the creative process and the resulting artwork” to:

  • Explore their feelings
  • Deal with emotional conflicts
  • Advance self-awareness
  • Manage addictions and behavior
  • Reduce anxiety
  • Increase self-esteem
  • Modify behavior
  • Increase social skills
  • Improve reality orientation

Art therapy began in the early 20th century when psychologists realized that a child’s drawings could be used to gauge his/her developmental stage. They then realized that what an adult draws can say a lot about his/her mental health. By the end of the century, art therapists were treating a number of mental disorders in different settings with individuals and small groups.

It is based on the idea that images and visual symbols are the most natural and simplest means of communication in humans. The patients try to visualize and create thoughts and feelings they can’t express. This is useful for adults and teenagers who have trouble talking about their feelings and thoughts, and for children who are not as verbal as older people.

When a person creates a drawing, painting or sculpture using colors and shapes, it can say something about what is going on inside the creator’s mind, whether he/she is aware of it or not. With a trained therapist, inner resources are drawn upon to create the artwork while personal issues are explored. Images and symbols are meaningful both consciously and unconsciously and can speak volumes, and the goal is to facilitate communication, self-expression and healing.

Interpretation of the artwork is done by the patients. They can achieve insight into their emotions and deal with issues along with their individual or group talk therapy sessions. Art therapy does not replace medications and medical care from a psychiatrist or psychologist.

Specific uses include:

  • Schizophrenia: A British study has shown a reduction in the number of hallucinations and delusions for a two year period.
  • Bipolar disorder: Brain function changes during the manic phase have been noted while the patient is engaging in artistic creation.
  • PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder): Art therapy has been shown to help veterans deal with stress and physical symptoms, lessening nightmares, improving sleep and reducing the frequency of startled awakening.
  • ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and autism: Children with these conditions are helped with interpersonal skills, stress reduction, self-awareness, behavior management, attention skills and emotional problems.

Creative artwork can be relaxing and can elevate mood because it increases serotonin, a “feel-good” brain chemical. Depression can result from too little serotonin.

Art therapy is also used with other mental illnesses, such as borderline personality disorder.

There have been studies showing that there are common themes and elements in the artwork of people diagnosed with specific illnesses. Also, studies have shown common themes in the artwork of victims of trauma and sexual abuse.