Pencils, easels and paintbrushes have power to help as well: art opens up new opportunities.
Art and creativity literally brighten life. I myself find art clears and focuses my mind and boosts my mood. Running Medley now, I’ve seen at first hand how other people find this too. Participants in Medley’s art for wellbeing projects have shared how creativity absorbs them, making them feel calmer and more positive.
Art activities and therapy alike differ widely. Some use group sessions, others work with individuals. All kinds of media, techniques and styles feature. There might be modelling or carving, design, linocut printing, textile art, assemblage, colouring, painting or drawing. Participants might create murals or porcelain and work in 2D or 3D. As well as creative art sessions, there are also initiatives focused on others’ paintings or sculptures, sometimes in an art gallery.
Art’s impact on wellbeing is also the focus of initiatives and research studies, although once again many are small scale in nature and wider evidence reviews remain limited. For example, the Visual Arts and Mental Health evidence review published in 2018 by What Works Wellbeing was the first of its kind. Led by Dr Alan Tomlinson of the University of Brighton, it reviewed some 5000 research studies from four countries before focusing on eight in particular.
Existing research identifies strong impacts for visual arts interventions with people with mental health issues, from post-traumatic stress disorder to panic attacks and from depression to eating disorders or substance misuse issues. NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) recommends art therapy specifically for people with certain conditions. Visual arts have also become widely used with dementia patients, who may participate themselves or observe while others paint or draw. While dementia and older age may weaken their motor skills so that their artistic ability deteriorates, the creativity involved remains highly beneficial.
Stroke recovery is another area where the visual arts may contribute. As well as specific art therapy, there are also many other initiatives creating opportunities for stroke survivors to take part in artwork. Some are run as Stroke Association voluntary groups and may cover drawing, painting, design or printing. Some Stroke Association-linked aphasia groups use drawing and visual imagery as a communication tool. The charity Paintings In Hospitals runs art workshops in healthcare settings, alongside their main role running a loans programme of world-class paintings and other art works to these settings. They say that creative arts ease depression among stroke survivors and improve their physical functions.
Across different settings and conditions, participatory art sessions build confidence, ease depression and loneliness, create community and alleviate tension and anxiety. Enabling self-expression is one specific outcome. Using visual imagery, whether by painting, drawing or modelling for example, may free participants from the constraints of verbal expression, and allow them to explore their thoughts and responses in new ways. Bodies such as the British Association of Art Therapy and the American Association of Art Therapy, and existing research studies, have closely linked improved self-expression with the visual arts.