A paintbrush might seem an unlikely tool to ease mental health issues like anxiety. But art can do this in different ways. It can help by focusing the mind on a creative task, so that you concentrate more fully on what you are doing and the dear loosens its hold, for a time. It can help by boosting confidence and a feeling of capability, so that the fear shrinks a little. Obviously a lot depends on the cause of the anxiety, and sometimes anxiety can become so extreme that it could seem impossible to concentrate at all.
Fear and anxiety are familiar feelings for many people, and this year has seen anxiety levels spiral. For some, coronavirus has accentuated existing anxieties, for others this is a new experience.
A feeling of isolation or loneliness is integral to many (although not all) mental health issues, and this is somewhere where art can help. By painting or drawing in a group, people can feel part of a team or community. But even if you paint or draw alone, creativity can ease loneliness as it expresses emotions or ideas which might be suppressed. Translating those thoughts onto paper or into colour is a form of sharing.
Just as art can help people express themselves on personal issues, it can also enable them to explore wider issues (local, national or global). Covid-19 has highlighted how world events can suddenly overturn our lives. But it is far from alone. Now that more and more people recognize that a climate emergency is underway, this can add to depression or anxiety about what the future holds, so that it is likely to have a growing impact on mental health.
In some ways, there might seem little to connect art with climate change, but art is becoming an important way for people to respond and to express different reactions. One example is the work of Climate Museum UK, a Community Interest Company which uses objects and art to enable people to express themselves on climate issues in imaginative ways.
People might feel helpless in the face of so enormous and complex an issue as climate change. Art can allow you to visualize a different future, to imagine alternatives, and to empathize with other people or creatures. Climate Museum UK is planning a new project called The Wild Museum, with the team dressing as animal curators to help young people explore climate change’s impacts on other species.
For 2020, The Big Draw has even renamed itself The Big Green Draw, with its theme A Climate Of Change, focusing on people’s relationship with nature, the living environment through art classes, workshops and other (mainly virtual) events.
I recently took part in an art challenge to paint or draw “signposts and barriers” – what helps us to find ways to live more sustainable, and what holds us back. Just thinking what I might paint focused my mind on what the barriers really are, so that I could represent them simply, and I found this helpful.
All this recognizes that far from being separate from life, secondary or trivial, art instead grows out of life- and can contribute to change and wellbeing, either for any one person, or for communities. Do you agree? How have you found art helpful? It would be great if you could share any thoughts on Medley’s new Facebook group, https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002