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.