The Connection Between Art and Mental Health
Today (October 10, 2021) is World Mental Health Day. Having dealt with mental health issues most of my adult life, this is a topic I'm familiar with, and passionate about. This year's slogan is:
Mental health care for all: let's make it a reality
I think the connection between art and mental health makes this a particularly relevant topic to discuss. After all - art is available to anyone and doesn't cost much.
Mental Health Statistics
Just how prevalent are mental health issues? According to Our World in Data:
970 million people worldwide have a mental health or substance abuse disorder.
Anxiety affects 284 million people in the world.
Depression affects 264 million people.
Alcohol use disorder affects 107 million people.
Drug use disorder affects 71 million people.
Bipolar disorder affects 46 million people.
Schizophrenia affects 20 million people.
Eating disorders affect 16 million people.
Of course the pandemic hasn't done anything to help these numbers. Besides the increased stress, anxiety, and depression it has contributed to, it has also had an impact on access to mental health supports and resources. That's why in today's blog I'm going to talk about the benefits of art for your mental health.
My Mental Health Struggles and Experience with Art
I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression (dysthymic disorder) in my early 20's. Since then I've been on and off various anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications. When I was pregnant with my daughter I suffered from perinatal anxiety and depression and had to start taking Prozac while I was pregnant.
4 years later I went off my medication for a few months, but my anxiety became so bad that I had to stay in the hospital for a week while I started taking medication again (I had actually gotten a prescription from my doctor a few weeks before that when I knew things were getting bad again - but then I went home and Googled it - bad idea - and was worried about the potential side effects). It was then that a doctor said something that changed my outlook. She said "Some people just need to be on medication and there's nothing wrong with that. Diabetics need insulin. Depression is a physical illness like diabetes and has to be managed with medication. Would you be ashamed to be on insulin? Or to have chemo for cancer?" That was the point when I started feeling like didn't have anything to be ashamed of and I started opening up about my mental health, despite the stigma that was (and still is) associated with mental health issues. But the only way to remove a stigma is to educate people and you can't do that by staying silent.
Just before the pandemic started I was looking for an activity I could do with my daughter and that's how I discovered alcohol inks ( back then I didn't know about the safety issues with using the inks - now I don't use them around my family or my dog).I've always been fairly creative but I never found one particular medium that I stuck with for any length of time until I started painting with alcohol ink. And I noticed that while I was painting, all my stress and worries disappeared. That's because when I paint it's like meditation, I'm focused on the present, all the thoughts that are usually running around in my head are quiet. I'm terrible at traditional meditation. I have ADHD so I find it really hard to focus if I'm not doing something.
How Does Art Help Your Mental Health?
According to Brittany Harker Martin in her article "Brain research shows the arts promote mental health", "With recent advances in biological, cognitive and neurological science, there are new forms of evidence on the arts and the brain. For example, researchers have used biofeedback to study the effects of visual art on neural circuits and neuroendocrine markers to find biological evidence that visual art promotes health, wellness and fosters adaptive responses to stress."
Basically, by using brain imaging, brain wave technology and biofeedback, researchers can actually see how our brains respond to the arts. From this they've been able to see evidence that :
Creating art (regardless of skill level) helps you to slow down and relax which in turn lowers the levels of cortisol in your body.
Creating art requires you to focus on the present moment and helps distract you from negative thoughts (similar to meditation and mindfulness).
Creating something by yourself builds your confidence and sense of accomplishment which activates the reward center of the brain - releasing dopamine.
Creating art promotes brain development (neuroplasticity) by creating new connections between brain cells. It's thought that these connections increase the possibilities for change, and altering dysfunctional behavior.
Creating art stimulates communication between various parts of the brain which increases your psychological and emotional resilience, making you more resistant to stress.
As you can see, there are many health benefits to creating art. And the great thing about art is its accessible to almost everyone, it doesn't cost much, and can be done almost anywhere.
What are your favorite activities to de-stress? Comment below!