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The Benefits of Art Therapy

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Creating art can have lasting mental health benefits

“Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.” ~ Pablo Picasso

A number of years ago, I met an interesting artist at a festival in the North Country. He was a potter who made beautiful large platters with imprinted designs and glazes that mimicked the colors of the Adirondack Mountains, valleys, trees, and waterways. Intrigued, my husband and I chatted with him about the process. He described the method as slab pottery, an exciting way to create shapes that could never be produced using a potter’s wheel. His next sentence, however, really caught my attention. He said, “It is incredibly therapeutic and has proved especially beneficial for the vets. Their PTSD symptoms all but disappear when they are working with clay.” It turns out, the artist worked with a military base mental health program. The art therapy program helped soothe the veterans’ PTSD symptoms and provided a creative, non-verbal outlet for their emotions. This was my first introduction to art therapy, a therapeutic tool that facilitates emotional growth and promotes both mental and physical healing and recovery.

Art therapy can be beneficial for a wide variety of individuals, including patients dealing with mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, as well as those battling serious medical issues, like cancer or chronic illness. It can also help those recovering from trauma or addiction, working through grief, or coping with a disability. It is appropriate for all ages, genders, and cultures. The reality of this world is that many folks are distressed, hurting, confused, and sometimes abused. For some, a healthy support network filled with love and the freedom to talk will help them to survive and even thrive. For others, talk therapy with a trained counselor will provide relief. For some, however, words will fail. In these cases, art therapy may help the individual to gain insight, create an outlet, and facilitate healing.

Art therapy uses all forms of art such as drawing, painting, sculpture, and photography. As opposed to an art class that concentrates on technique and talent, art therapy encourages natural expression at all ability levels. It is not about a creating a masterpiece. Rather it is about the process. Art therapy is used in two main ways. It may simply be a form of relaxation and meditation. A person engrossed in an art project may get in the “zone” allowing the brain to concentrate on the process, which in turn induces peace and relaxation. Art therapy can also aid the therapeutic analytic process. For instance, the colors and content of a painting may reveal emotional or thought processes about an individual. Art therapists facilitate the sessions.

Art therapists are master-level clinicians who work with folks who have medical and mental health challenges, as well as individuals seeking emotional, creative, and spiritual growth. They are trained to notice nonverbal symbols and metaphors that are often expressed through art and the creative process, concepts that are usually difficult to express with words. It is through this process of discovery that the individual really begins to see the effects of art therapy. The therapists work at a variety of settings including but not limited to schools, outpatient clinics, day treatment centers, residential homes, addiction treatment centers, hospitals, and correctional facilities. They often work in conjunction with a team. For example, an art therapist may collaborate with an oncology doctor, to give cancer patients an outlet for their various emotions and to help work through treatment pain.

Art therapy is a comprehensive approach and often helps with the physical as well as the mental. A case study published in Journal of the American Art Therapy Association looked at a stroke patient and the effectiveness of art therapy across a variety of symptoms. The patient’s treatment, 10 weeks of art therapy twice a week, resulted in improved emotion, cognition, and motor activity and movement. Art therapy seems particularly helpful in decreasing depressive and anxiety symptoms and increasing self-confidence, self-concept, creativity, and purpose. Studies verify positive wellness outcomes for ADHD, asthma, addiction, chemotherapy, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, fertility, diabetes, brain tumor, dementia, depressed, and burnt out patients.

Locally, Noyes Mental Health and Wellness Services offers individual, group and family therapy for adults, children, and families in a friendly and open atmosphere. The multidisciplinary team of professionals with backgrounds in psychiatry, psychology, social work, and counseling offers a variety of treatment options including play therapy, art therapy, parent-child therapy, and other methods. They address issues including Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder behavioral problems, stress management, anger management, grief and loss, trauma, life transitions, depression and anxiety, mood disorders, marital and family problems, chronic pain and health issues. To learn more or receive services including art therapy, call (585) 335-4316.

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at UR Medicine Noyes Health in Dansville, NY. To discuss this topic or offer suggestions for future articles, contact Lorraine at (585)335-4327 or

lwichtowski@noyeshealth.org.

Media Contact

Mary Sue Dehn

(585) 335-4323

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