Art and Mental Health: A Beautiful Picture

BY Isabella Munford

Those who see the world differently, sometimes due to changes in mental state, are often the best at expressing themselves creatively. Unsurprisingly, some of the best artists of their time, such as Mark Rothko, Edvard Munch or Bernard Buffet have credited their artwork to changes in their mental health. Others, including Paul Cézanne and Jackson Pollock, have even been diagnosed posthumously as suffering from mental illness.

Vincent Van Gogh famously painted Starry Night (1889) during his time as a patient in a French Asylum just one year before his death. Having suffered a mental episode, Van Gogh was not able to verbally communicate at this point in his life but had not lost his ability to paint, leading him to produce one of his most prolific and celebrated pieces of all time. 

Starry Night has incited plenty of debates within the medical community, with neurosurgeons claiming it shows evidence that Van Gogh suffered from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLE) and the stars themselves subconsciously mirror a transverse section of the human hippocampus and parahippocampal gyrus. Others say it shows evidence of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, terpene intoxication and a multitude of other conditions. 

Taking a more societal approach, it is hoped that art by people with mental health struggles can work towards removing the stigma surrounding these conditions

However, art is not only useful as a tool to help aid diagnoses, it is in fact a medium that can be used in many different ways when addressing mental illness. A recent eye-opening podcast by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing (APPGAHW) highlighted that people who face mental health issues find art helpful in a multitude of ways. Art allows patients to be part of a greater community: both to educate and be educated about mental health conditions whilst also providing the artist a release in a way that other outlets such as exercise do not.

Even further, art can be used as a form of communication and expression of emotion when other forms of communication are not accessible. Sometimes a patient’s art can also help those close to the individual to better understand their struggle with mental illness. Taking a more societal approach, it is hoped that art by people with mental health struggles can work towards removing the stigma surrounding these conditions, with charities such as ‘The Perspective Project’ aiming to do precisely that. 

The use of art as therapy is not a new idea and actually started in the 1800s when psychiatrists began to incorporate art into their treatments. However, it didn’t fully develop as a treatment until the first World War, for those who had suffered ‘shellshock’. Nowadays, art can be formally used to address mental wellbeing via two main routes in the United Kingdom. Firstly, a scheme called ‘Arts on Prescription’ offers workshops to support patients suffering from mental health issues, and secondly it is possible to attend art therapy. Art therapy is a particular form of psychotherapy that uses art as a way to explore emotional issues, which may be causing distress to the person. It is applicable to people of all ages, from children to the elderly, and can be used to address a wide range of difficulties including mental health struggles. 

…more evidence-based research is needed to encourage the use of creative mediums in healthcare settings

Although art can go a long way to support people with mental illnesses, there is a significant lack of formal knowledge that underpins the connection between art and mental wellbeing. Now, effort has been invested to understand just how beneficial art therapy is for those battling with mental illness. Fortunately, studies have now shown that Arts on Prescription improves the quality of life of mental health patients resulting in participants feeling more empowered and confident, ultimately leading to fewer feelings of isolation and social exclusion. A more recent report by the APPGAHW further indicates that arts-based approaches do not only aid people in recovering better and faster, they are also useful tools for managing long-term conditions and improving patients’ quality of life. Furthermore, this report also suggested that arts interventions improved the wellbeing of the staff and helped to reduce healthcare costs, with a 37% reduction in GP consultation rates and a 26% drop in hospital admissions, leading to an overall saving of £216 per patient. Despite these reports, more evidence-based research is needed to encourage the use of creative mediums in healthcare settings, and ultimately support the rising number of people suffering from mental illnesses. 

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