Using Art Therapy to Create Freedom From Depression

The healing power of art has long been recognized by artists around the world, but it is now emerging as an evidence-based therapeutic modality for depression. By creating new avenues for self-expression, art therapy provides invaluable benefits for people struggling with even severe depressive episodes. With mounting evidence of efficacy, we are now witnessing increased integration of art therapy within depression treatment.

Depression treatment is inherently about creation. Through specialized interventions and compassionate support, you create new thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. You create an expanded capacity for joy, love, and confidence. You create a new future in which you can live harmoniously with yourself and with the world around you. Sometimes, depression treatment is also about another kind of creation: the creation of art.

Although artists of all stripes have long recognized the healing potential of artistic production, it has only been in the past few decades that art has entered into the realm of evidence-based psychotherapy. As art therapy has emerged as a legitimate field of therapeutic intervention, people struggling with depression have been given a new language of recovery, opening up possibilities for healing.

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Creating Self-Expression

Depression can be a deeply painful, disorienting, and isolating experience. It robs you of your capacity for joy and removes you from that which used to sustain you. It also often silences you as you lose the ability to give voice to your suffering and communicate your pain in healthy ways. In so many ways, depression is about destruction—destruction of your sense of self, your functionality, and the breadth of your emotions.

For people with depression, art therapy represents an opportunity to push against that destruction by immersing yourself in the process of creation. “Research has shown that art making can have a profound impact on a person’s physical and psychological well-being,” says Marygrace Berberian, a clinical assistant professor of art therapy at New York University. RyAnn Watson, a young woman in treatment at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, knows this well. As she sketches out the soaring towers of the Smithsonian castle under the watchful gaze of her art therapist, she says, “It’s more about putting my emotions into the artwork than telling someone about it and making myself upset. I end up talking to [my therapist] about everything, once I’m drawing.”

Through guided or spontaneous artistic production, you are able to experience profound benefits often not found in other therapeutic modalities, including finding means of expression that do not require verbal communication. “It can be difficult to open up to complete strangers about your deepest darkest emotions. Sometimes we are taught to suppress our emotions and put on a blank face, even when experiencing inner turmoil,” explains Douglas Mitchell, a marriage and family therapist.

A mere lump of clay or a blank canvas can be far less threatening than giving voice to painful feelings, words, or images. The simple act of a scribble on paper can likely bring to light darkness, ignite conversation, or be a release for a depressing thought.

Indeed, many people in the midst of a depressive episode find that art therapy provides a line of communication—both verbal and nonverbal—that opens up conversations with themselves, clinicians, and peers. In doing so, you are able to more fully explore your thoughts and emotions and address your mental health disorder in a safe and positive way. Additionally, art therapy allows you to achieve a sense of independence and self-sufficiency, break through dysfunctional thought patterns, develop healthy coping mechanisms, achieve greater empathy, and strengthen your problem-solving skills.

Evidence of Efficacy

Although therapists and their clients have known the healing power of art therapy for years, it has only been relatively recently that empirical research supporting its use has emerged. “There are clear indications that artistic engagement has significantly positive effects on health,” write Heather Stuckey and Jeremy Nobel in the American Journal of Public Health.

[Research appears] to indicate that creative engagement can decrease anxiety, stress, and mood disturbance. It complements the biomedical view [of mental illness] by focusing on not only sickness and symptoms themselves, but the holistic nature of the person. Through creativity and imagination, we find our identity and our reservoir of healing.

Other studies back up these assertions. In one meta-review published in 2015 examining the impact of art therapy on depression, anxiety, trauma, distress, inability to cope, and low self-esteem, researchers write, “Patients receiving art therapy had significant improvements in 14 out of 15 randomized control trials.” In fact, the majority of studies indicate that art therapy “was a more effective treatment for at least one outcome than the control groups.” Yet another study found that participants in art therapy “make less phone calls to medical and mental health providers; require fewer referrals to medical specialists; have a decreased number of somatic symptoms and complaints; and reduce their utilization of medical and mental health services.”

Integrating Art Therapy in Depression Treatment

Despite its invaluable benefits, art therapy is not a standalone treatment. Rather, it should be incorporated within a broader range of therapeutic interventions to create a comprehensive treatment experience for people struggling with depression. “Art therapy is not the be-all and end-all for mental health challenges,” says Asa Don Brown of the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association.

Neither is art therapy an instrument that is capable of spontaneously curing, healing, correcting, restoring, or resolving an individual’s heath needs; rather it is similar to a majority of psychotherapy modalities, it is an instrument that can help guide and promote psychological health and wellbeing.

By integrating art therapy in a residential mental health treatment environment, you can benefit from an array of therapeutic modalities that intersect and play off each other. In other words, you can bring your insights from CBT into art therapy, the new language you have developed in art therapy into your process group, etc. In doing so, you are able to potentiate all aspects of treatment to create a holistic healing experience and unlock your true potential.

Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles residential treatment programs. We can help you or your loved one start on the path to healing.