Mental illness is a dark, lonely and scary state. It brings with it a blackout of basic survival skills and thereby exposes the individual to the whim of circumstances and people surrounding them. Uncaring and abusive treatment facilities, health care professionals and relatives can turn such an existence into hell on earth. But even if you are in the best of hands, your recovery depends on one indispensable ingredient: you. It is understood that you may not be able to take care of yourself. Still, you can attempt to stimulate your mind and emotions.
In fact, many clinics offer arts therapy, music therapy, sports activities, animal therapy, walks, and other stimulating experiences. Those are not meant to simply kill time and break the monotony of another day in a dull hospital setting, although these are certainly important aspects. In the first place, they are aimed at “defrosting” you. Mental illness is, so to speak, a general paralysis of the spirit. Thoughts and feelings, which help a healthy person to evaluate situations, take action and define their direction in life, fail to develop that traction in someone going through a mental crisis. Instead, they form something like a ball of yarn, if you will, with no visible loose end to pull at. In more rational terms, the confusion and erratic choices associated with mental illness derive from the impossibility of prioritizing thoughts and feelings functionally. The result is a disabling, smothering information overload. Therapies providing sensory stimuli intend to focus the patient’s mind and reactivate its capacity for healthy judgment, in the hopes of making the individual find the end of the metaphorical thread again.
Particularly artistic therapies challenge the patient to reawaken their power of judgment and decision. Creativity relies on the processing of given resources – materials, techniques and motifs – and their elaboration into a product that represents the uniqueness of its author’s interpretation. In a nutshell, creativity is the application of preexisting, generic ideas to a specific situation, in order to produce a new circumstance or object, the creative person’s individual experiences and capacities of judgment being the catalyst for this process. In plain English: when we are baking an apple cake, recipe in hand, and notice all our apples have gone bad, we will evoke the generic idea of “fruit” and look around our kitchen to see if we have something that could work in a similar way to apples. If we are lucky, we’ll find pears or plums, and use those. That is creativity. As the culinary example shows, creativity occurs not just within the fine arts. It is the motor of our survival and evolution both as a species and as individual beings. All our life decisions are necessarily creative, because we constantly attempt to adapt our circumstances to our individual needs and wishes. No matter how unadventurous and conventional a person is, they will always need to take decisions and create situations nobody else has ever taken before in the exact same way, simply because nobody else IS them.
Interestingly, numerous theories on the causes of mental illness sustain it can be triggered by dysfunctional or abusive relationships – may they occur in childhood or in adult life. If we try to define “dysfunction” or “abuse”, we will likely conclude that the destructive manipulation of the individual’s capacity to make healthy choices is an important part of these concepts. In other words, dysfunctional and abusive relationships affect or stunt the victim’s creativity, thus injuring their survival skills.
Herein lies the relevance of therapeutic approaches that involve the stimulation of creativity. Painting or making mosaics is more than a nice pastime producing pretty results. It stimulates vital cognitive functions and can contribute significantly to a patient’s return to a functioning and satisfying life.
Another aspect of creative therapy that should not be underestimated is the fostering of self-confidence. Not just mental illness, but also the stigma associated to being in psychiatric treatment can shatter your self-image. I have come across more than one person who suffered a painful transition from successful professional to hospitalized nutcase. Among them was a woman who used to be a psychotherapist and, after collapsing and having been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, will likely spend many years in supervised living facilities or in and out of mental hospitals. What I wish to say is that people who were socially “normal” can end up with the label “crazy” stuck on their foreheads. The stigma of it alone, even when it is the result of a misdiagnosis, is powerful enough to down individuals who so far had been high-flyers. While creative therapy will not magically reestablish anyone in their previous position, after a catastrophic collapse it can be one of the few things left showing you that you are actually able to accomplish something. Every ounce of hope counts. Accumulate many of them.
Now, at the top of the present article I stated the importance of the individual’s wish to get better. Mostly, what counts is for you to just give something new a try. Some people may argue they are not the artsy type, but as I have argued above, that is also not was creative therapies are mainly about. Creativity is an indispensable life skill because it empowers you to take your life in your own hands and make the best out of past experiences. Creative therapies also help individuals lessen the weight of trauma on a deeper level than spoken or written words ever could. Fear and pain can be nameless, but it may be possible to encrypt them in color, shape, sound or movement. Also, the socially established connotations of verbal language often provoke feelings of shame and defeat, especially when it comes to describing a victimizing situation. Not so the arts. They allow even humiliating experiences to be expressed in a shrouded and abstract manner, therefore being emotionally less taxing than a verbal account. Words are powerful on a conscious level, but in order to release pressure accumulated in the subconscious, the arts can be more efficient. Any activity that helps you exercise your creativity will ultimately strengthen your self-confidence and enhance your coping skills.
Creativity is also a source of joy and social interaction, which are also pillars of mental health. Just to add another anecdote, from my last stay in a psychiatric hospital, I remember a gentleman who, if I am not mistaken, worked as a transport entrepreneur and was treated for depression. He looked anything but an artist. Yet, through arts therapy, he discovered his passion and talent for oil painting. In an amazingly short period of time, he became skillful enough to produce a series of remarkable, very expressive floral still lives, which the clinic decided to display in its corridors. Both staff and fellow patients openly admired his work and encouraged him to stick to his new found love. Frankly, I have no information on whether he ultimately recovered from his depression. The last thing I know, before I myself was discharged from the clinic, was that he had become an outpatient and gone back to living at home. I would not go as far as saying that his mental health improved due to arts therapy, but I am convinced that his motivating experience within the clinical setting must have given him a good push forward in everyday life as well.
Personally, I believe the all-encompassing benefits of creative activities are the reason why so many people engage in crafty pastimes. On the most immediate level, creating something beautiful or practical is an uplifting experience. It makes you feel productive and gives you aesthetic pleasure. But also, making something which has not existed before tells you that you are able to shape your surrounding circumstances. You may have only crocheted a doily or lined a shoe box, but spiritually it is a symbol for your power to contribute to reality and bring the things you desire into your life. It means you are capable of making choices which lead to a good result on a small scale, which in turn should encourage you to believe that, on a higher plane, you will succeed in the making of bigger decisions as well.
Arts therapy, as the term suggests, includes an element of systematic psychological support in addition to the application of creative skills. But even if you, or someone you know who is in need of help, have no access to arts therapy, taking up a creative hobby is always an option for you. Depending on the materials and the equipment some arts require, they can be more or less costly. Therefore, consider your budget before you get started. Also, if you don’t feel like committing to one specific activity right now, browse the internet for DIY blogs. They are literally everywhere, and many of them offer tutorials on smaller, varied arts and crafts projects. You can even look for tutorials on how to redecorate your home in an easy and low-cost way, or how to pep up your wardrobe with self-made accessories, if you wish for a practical rather than a purely aesthetic approach. Creativity has no limits, so take your time and enjoy the many ideas buzzing around on the www. Feel free to share your thoughts on creativity and mental health below in the comments section.
The Art Therapy blog offers descriptions of various types of creative therapies, articles on related topics and information on educational options for people who are interested in becoming therapists. First and foremost, this blog is informative and inspiring. It is not a support website for those in crisis or otherwise in need of help. Still, remember that knowledge is always empowering. So, no matter on which side of the table you sit, it is a useful website to visit. The Art Therapy blog also runs a Facebook page. http://www.arttherapyblog.com/