Art Making as a Mental Health Recovery Tool for Change and Coping

Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association
May 19, 2015 3:35 PM ET
Figure 3. Feeling Like a Storm by Paul (Acrylic on paper, 42 cm x 30 cm)

Art Making as a Mental Health Recovery Tool for Change and Coping


Mental health recovery requires a thoughtful and sensitive relationship between practitioners and the consumers they serve. Ideally the relationship is built on mutual respect, openness, honesty, and trust (Jacobson & Greenley, 2001). This attitude involves practitioners adopting a role that places emphasis on helping the client build skills and encouraging connections with support networks such as peer support groups (Davidson, Harding, & Spaniol, 2005). Additionally, practitioners work beyond making sure basic needs are met by equipping clients with the knowledge, insights, resources, and information that will assist them in making informed choices about their lives (Onken, Dumont, Ridgway, Dornan, & Ralph, 2002).

Art therapists who adopt a mental health recovery framework tend to perceive their role as that of a “guide” (Van Lith, Fenner, & Schofield, 2009); many disregard the title of therapist altogether because of its connotations of an expert having authority over clients (Vick & Sexton-Radek, 2008). A recent British survey of art therapists working in mental health settings found that the majority of respondents used a nondirective approach that encouraged clients to express their feelings and derive their own understanding and meaning from the artworks they created (Patterson, Debate, Anju, Waller, & Crawford, 2011). This result is in keeping with the view of mental health recovery as an ongoing process whereby therapeutic benefits need to be intrinsically and intuitively experienced for long-term change to occur (Deegan, 1988, 2005). The intrinsic benefits of art making, therefore, may be implicated in how and why people with mental illness turn to art therapy to aid their recovery.

Art therapists value artistic expression as a manifestation of deeper or hidden psychological needs and as a means for accessing personal and cultural history not available through verbal means alone (Karkou & Sanderson, 2006). A collaboratively written article by an art therapist and former mental health service user demonstrated how artwork can embody multiple perceived mental states as it becomes a relational subject rather than an inanimate object to its maker (Melliar & Brühka, 2010). Through reflections on the various contexts in which artwork was created and then viewed (within therapy, in the studio, and via an exhibition), the authors agreed that the power of the client's artwork shifted from context to context as new insights continuously emerged. In this example an aesthetic response to the artwork occurred because the client and therapist put themselves in a relationship with it. It is as though the artwork itself developed an emotive state with which they could engage, similar to an empathetic response (J. Green, 2009). In another account by a mental health service user, Kathy (pseudonym) wrote that the process of “looking at these paintings is like reading a book of my story” (Learmonth & Gibson, 2010, p. 55). However, this avowal is not the same as the suggestion that what one sees in an artwork is simply a reflection of the artist's mental state. Kathy experienced her narrative in fragments, like pieces of a puzzle; the art images were catalysts for an emerging coherence of self.

The notion of artistic sensibility, as explained by art therapist Thompson (2009), extends the above concepts in relation to how art making empowers people living with mental illness. Art making offers potential integration of aesthetic qualities toward the self and others through a process of becoming aware of one's artistic identity (Thompson, 2009). This in turn strengthens a person's emotional and cognitive processes by infusing them with recovered internal and external parts of the self. As a further consequence, artistic self-exploration saturates the image with meaning so that previously inaccessible and fragmented parts of the self find a place to become known. Thus, people with mental illness may reduce their sense of stigmatization by recovering a fractured part of self-identity.

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