The Healing Power of Art.

By Lisa BonetSeptember 24, 2013

If you have ever recognized your own thoughts and experiences in a piece of art or felt as if you were connected somehow to a fictional character, you already know how influential art can be. What you might not have realized is that art can also help break down the barriers and stigma that can divide and isolate us, and that creating art for yourself can even help to heal your mind and body. Many people have experienced these healing powers of art throughout history, and there is more than enough reason to believe that using your own creativity can help keep you healthy today. 

Personal works created by people who were driven simply by the need to express themselves show us how important exploring our creative sides can be. Some of the earliest and most moving examples of people using creativity to heal are found in the Prinzhorn Collection in Germany. It includes the work of about 450 people, all of whom were living in psychiatric institutions between 1880 and 1920, and it gives us a unique insight into what life was like for these artists. The collection even inspired professionals such as Picasso, Max Ernst, and Paul Klee. One of the most famous and interesting pieces is the hospital jacket that was tailored and embroidered by Agnes Richter. The jacket is covered with intricate strings of words, of which only small passages are now readable. Even though we can’t tell exactly what Richter wanted to say, it is clear she felt the urge to record her own story and express herself with the only materials she had on hand: a needle and thread. She was not given the chance to write or paint or encouraged to find unique ways of understanding herself, but she managed to create a beautiful record of her own story anyway.

Creative endeavors were rarely encouraged for people suffering from trauma or illness in Richter’s time. In some cases, doctors misguidedly even tried to prevent those in their care from writing or painting. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” written in 1892, around the same time that Agnes Richter was embroidering her jacket, describes this sort of experience. Gilman hoped that in writing about the treatment from the patient’s perspective, she would be able to convince doctors of the harm such methods cause. The much-discussed story made a strong case that has helped affect attitudes toward art in medicine.

It is partly due to artists like Gilman and Richter that the importance of creativity has now been recognized—but it often takes science to provoke real change. Psychologists like Professor Jamie Pennebaker have produced necessary research, which is enough to show even the most reluctant artist that the power of expression goes much further than we might expect. Pennebaker asked people to write about their most upsetting and traumatic experiences in a journal, and then measured the effects. He found that spending just 15 minutes a day writing for four days produced significant increases in wellbeing, even when the journals were kept private. He also noticed there was a shift in the type of language the writers were using. At the beginning, they were very focused on their own emotions, with sentences based on “I” and “me”. Toward the end, people were writing more thoughtfully, trying to understand what had really happened, and talking about “we” and “us,” rather than just themselves. Pennebaker found reliable scientific proof of the ability of art to strengthen people and help build empathy, community, and human connection.

Many modern artists continue to pull inspiration from their darkest days and show others that we are not alone when we feel at our worst. The artist Bobby Baker documented her experiences of mental illness, self-harm, and cancer in a journal filled with images that expressed her conflicted self-image, while cartoonist Ally Brosh used her illustrations as a means of explaining her depression to other people. Works like these have helped break down barriers and encourage discussion of serious issues like mental health and self-injury, while also helping the artists heal.

Because of examples like the ones above, creative therapies have now become part of the treatment for many sorts of illnesses. Doctors in some parts of the world even recommend art as an essential part of treatment for patients diagnosed with mental illnesses like schizophrenia. Expression of all types, from writing to dance, drama to painting, has been used to help people deal with negative emotions and symptoms. People have used art therapy to overcome traumatic experiences and PTSD or to cope with addiction recovery and symptoms of substance abuse, like insomnia and depression. Treatment programs for addiction and mental illness often include the chance to try some art therapy, and for many, this is an opportunity that will play a significant part in their recoveries. It’s increasingly clear that participating in these types of therapies can help to improve both physical health and quality of life.

The best works of art equip us to empathize with people whose worlds may be completely different from our own. They provide a space in which we can explore our own feelings, while at the same time allowing us to communicate these personal experiences—and ultimately, hope—to the people around us. Whether you find yourself in another’s piece or prefer creating your own, don’t underestimate art’s healing power.

How has art had an impact on your mental health? What forms of expression influence you most? Tell us more in the comments below.

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Comments (28)

  1. Jackie

    I’ve found that music really helps me. It doesn’t matter if I’m listening to it, singing with my collegiate choir, or just singing along at church or in the car. There’s something about just being able to put my emotions into something “physical” that helps me to calm down and not be as anxious. I’m also planning on making a collage with my counselor of things that either make me happy or are positive words/phrases that can help me when my depression leaves me feeling down.

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  2. Sara

    Such a cool blog entry. Reminds me why I’m studying art at the college level today. All in hopes of helping others in the future through art therapy.

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  3. Emily Scott

    Definitely music. Everytime I pick up my guitar and sing my mind seems to enter completely into whatever i’m singing and it can be so powerful in changing how I feel, even if just for the moment.

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  4. Mariana

    It really works.I mean writing is my therapy and my hobby, since I started to write I sleep better and I went out of depression too.
    I think everyone have the power to write, paint, dance, sing…it’s cool and it’s high recommended you can do it!

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  5. Anonymous

    Thank you for this. I am 49 yr old who started art 11 months ago, on my own and within two weeks i was addicted to mixed media art. I served 12 yrs in USAF and suffered PTSD, anxiety, trust issues and fear. Now I am more open, smile more and taking less medications. Art is healing me. I love God more because I feel Him intimately when I do art.

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  6. Eseosa

    Thank you

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  7. Erika

    Photography and music have been my way of dealing with bad emotions, anger or just having a crappy day. It definitely soothes my soul, calms my brain and relaxes my body, leaving me feel happy and acomiplished when done.
    This matter should be definitely more addressed and included in any program noadays.

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  8. Holly

    After attempting suicide in January 2012, I underwent intensive therapy for a few weeks. Once I was “released” from care, I still suffered from self esteem issues & depressive thoughts. As an artist, I didn’t have the energy to pickup a pen or pencil or even go out with my camera. I’m so grateful that I found; I spent a lot of time making art sets on-line & I’ve found a community of people who also use the site for art therapy. It’s helped me so much in the past 18 months & I don’t know what I would’ve done without it.

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  9. Tanja Rigby

    When my brother took his life 2 years ago I needed a way to keep my racing thoughts in check. I started crocheting. This process helped me be creative, calm my mind and put my energy somewhere. Many blankets and projects later I decided later that year to go back to school to complete my degree in graphic design. I found my joy again and art and the love of God brought me to a place where I can continue to heal.

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  10. Lesley

    And this is the exact reason I started my non profit. Dandelion Wishes Inc.

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  11. b.e. noll

    music was the first art I just could not get enough of. To borrow a bit from my mother, I listen to music because I’m mad, sad, or glad. And I’m usually one of those. Saw a frame once with this in it: “music is what feelings sound like”. Music can be “painting with sound”. It’s helped me get my sadness out side of me, so I can move away from it before it swallows me whole.
    As I’ve dealt with the darker chapters of my story, I’ve learned to journal, which gave way to writing poems. Some of my writing is so much “venting”. The cool thing is once it’s on paper I can close the book & walk away from it & live [like Renee tweeted: You are more than your story]. Now I have recently begun writing my story out. It’s very rough [not to mention graphic]. In it’s current form it’s redemptive to write it out of me. However, probably not sufficiently redemptive to read. Yet as I write it an odd thing seems to be happening… I’m writing myself out of a prison I never knew I was in.
    And then there is photography. Which makes me feel “alive in the moment”. I’ve begun this strange habit of laughing while I’m in the middle of a good photo day. It seemed so strange that once I just blurted out: “God, this is so stupid”. Then I felt like He whispered: “yeah, isn’t it great?”. I laughed today, at the fact I couldn’t just pull over & take photos for about an hour.
    Thanks for the post.
    and yes, “The Healing Colors of sound” is a song

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  12. Danielle

    Art heals me. It adapts to my ability at the time. Music and writing seem to do the most for me personally. Sometimes I will write something and only later understand the depth of my own words.

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  13. anonymous

    Writing down inspirational quotes I hear and read has helped me.Then I try to remember them.Probably the most helpful one was “Nobody hurts so much that they can’t recover.”

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  14. Joe R

    Im a student music therapist at University of Miami. Already I have worked at the Veteran’s Affair Hospital with veterans with PTSD, and now at Miami Children’s Hospital for children in psychiatric care.

    Music is truly a blessing, I LOVE seeing hope, recovery, it is what I LIVE for.

    Believe in yourself and be true to you. Sing, drum, dance, Live. We can do it together, God Bless on your Journey

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  15. Brittany Michaels

    Whenever I’m making an art piece or writing a song, poetry, or journal I feel a sense of relief. Sometimes I even feel a sort of peace. Making art it makes all of my thoughts disappear. I focus on the peace in front of me that it possesses me as a whole. I love watching people create art, I love connecting with written pieces or fictional characters, and seeing how someone expressed themselves? It’s a beautiful thing because they are sharing themselves with the world. They’re showing their true self and that’s a vulnerability you don’t see very often. Art, writing, drama, music, or any other form of art is a therapy, a gift, a secret told, connection, & so much more. I love art.

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  16. Juliana

    I can’t even describe how much music has helped me. Singing especially helps, as well as dance. There is no where I feel more at peace than when I am surrounded by music.

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  17. Emily Waugh

    I have a drive to create, and for me, if I am prevented from creating for a period of time, I can start to feel frustrated, anxious and mildly depressed; basically my general sense of wellbeing starts to suffer. I don’t mind what the material I am creating with is, if I am down the park sitting on the grass I will start to play with any willow twigs lying around, and I have tried as many different materials as I can get my hands on over the years; paint, clay, glass, wood, I love them all! There is a general sense of curiosity, peace, satisfaction and excited expectation when I create, although it can also be heartbreaking and frustrating when it goes wrong. When the piece turns out well then I just feel amazingly happy and excited, and usually eager with new ideas for the next piece! It’s even more special when you are making with or for somebody else, because it’s the same as the difference between talking to yourself and talking with other people. Art is expression on the deepest level of thoughts, memories and emotions, and frequently is a way of saying things you can’t express in normal conversation, and without those thoughts having to necessarily be understood by other people. It is freedom and release. I’d recommend being regularly creative to anyone, not just for healing, but for staying healthy too 🙂

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  18. Nicole

    It’s hard for me to talk about or explain how I feel, especially during a depressive episode. I sketch portraits of people outwardly expressing what I feel inwardly. It helps so much to get that emotion out in that way. And I make music to do something similar. Art is a great therapy.

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  19. Anonymous

    I began with simple watercolor pencils in my journey thru the depths of my depression. I did this while receiving ECT treatments, I found it quite soothing. I progressed to fancy Prism markers and filled many sketchbooks with images and then accompanying poems. I am now working with acrylics and canvas. It is so interesting when I look back at some of the art, barely remembering creating the piece. My therapist has been fantastic in helping me find my way on this journey. It has been 20 plus years and I can finally see some happiness in my art. I thoroughly enjoy the process and find it relaxing.

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  20. Leah Waig

    I’m a creative person struggling with depression and anxiety, and as such this post really spoke to me. Creating in any format can be a very vulnerable act, even if it is just for ourselves and is not meant to be seen by others. But I also know that the act of creating, whether it be a crocheted hat, a song, or a short story, is also a liberating, empowering act. Even if it’s just for that moment, you are expressing yourself freely. For just that moment, you are who you are and your focus is on your creation, your art–not wrapped up solely in your thoughts and emotions with no outlet.

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  21. Aimz

    Art, in many forms has helped bring what I didn’t understand toward the surface, closer to the light. Creating enabled me to communicate that which had no words, and opened doors to let others in who understood, related, could help. Even others who didn’t understand, didn’t relate, didn’t know how to help, now might…because of what they have seen, heard, touched, read; has tangibly communicated with their form of understanding. We could then see each other with new eyes and kinder hearts, with new perspectives. With compassion. With forgiveness.

    Painting is now more of a way for me to relieve stress (a tool), experience joy and maybe even answers, and to spread Hope to others. It’s no longer about the traumatic experience itself, but more about the relief, and the freedom felt, when I witnessed the dark shatter in the light as God and my fellow human beings had compassion. It’s about having Hope. About the fact that Hope really does exists, and can be had by anyone–that Hope is Not an abstract mystery meant only for a select few!

    When I paint, I hope that action helps give Hope to another person who is searching for it.

    It’s not always easy to tell my story face to face. Really I’m just learning how to. the longest strides are in the smallest steps, so a little paint and willingness seems to go pretty far lately. I like to see others experience Hope and Relief through any art–then I know for a fact we all have a purpose.

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  22. Marianne Pillsbury

    I’m a singer/songwriter and wrote an autobiographical one-woman show about my struggle with depression ( It was not only a therapeutic process for me but because others have identified with my story, it has given meaning and purpose to my struggles, knowing that sharing it will help others too.

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  23. Anonymous

    I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder almost two years ago. As a way to get through it, I started a photo project where the person takes a photo a day for a year. I decided to do it of myself doing various activities with friends, but the most powerful were the self-portraits. The entire experience was one of joy and heartbreak at the same time. I am now far enough away from the project to post it for friends and family to see on flickr. I hope it will make them proud.

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  24. Katye

    Listening to music, drawing, and singing really helps me. I still struggle… Maybe you never stop. But it does help:)

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  25. Johnd890

    You could certainly see your skills within the work you write. The world hopes for more passionate writers like you who arent afraid to say how they believe. Always follow your heart. dbbaebgcfkgg

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  26. Michael Williamson

    This is the second blog post I have read for TWLOHA. I’m impressed by the amount of sincerity and vulnerability in these posts. It’s helpful. My sister for Christmas gave me “If You Feel Too Much,” and so I’m hoping with my writing I can have a similar impact on other people lives, especially those struggling with mental illnesses. Thanks Jamie and to everyone else for this organization.

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  27. Jazmin Monique

    Art helps me release tension, I can’t necessarily put into words. whether it be music, poetry, journaling, or free body movement. I always end up feeling better than when I started, just from being able to release that pent up emotion.

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