Art is something that makes you breathe with a different kind of happiness.’ – Anni Albers
I cannot describe the emotions that Art stirs up in me! The eager anticipation of what I would take up for that Art experience, the planning for how to go about it, the gathering of supplies, the actual creation of the artwork and finally the feeling coursing through me, when I complete the piece and sit back to admire and critique what I have done! I have spent so many happy, excited, enthusiastic, unexpected, doubtful, confused, irritated, impatient moments that I have grown through each of my brushes with Art! And so, as a Psychiatrist, I find it absolutely intriguing the way people emote and express through their artistic creations.
While Art began to be used in treatment as a form of Therapy as early as 1942, it started off more as a form of Catharsis for patients suffering from Tuberculosis. So as to “build up a strong defence against their misfortunes”. In mental health, Art as a form of Therapy has now evolved and come a long, long way from those early days. Today, Art based Therapists work in sync with Psychiatrists, Occupational Therapists, Remedial Educators and other Mental Health Professionals to ensure a holistic recovery of their patients.
As a young psychiatry post graduate, I was trained thoroughly in basics like history taking, mental status examination, criteria for diagnosing disorders and the medical treatment options. However I often found, that while my patients did well and improved with medicines, there would be a pause when I asked, ‘Do you feel your life is back to the pre disorder levels?’. Often patients said that they were definitely better but something was missing and another doubt that kept nagging me was, how do I help them prevent further episodes! Once I started my private practice, I actually realised the advantages that effective therapy brought to patients and I found myself encouraging patients to look at the combination of medications and therapy as the best possible mental health solution.
Over the last 10 years in Mental Health, I have seen a good number of my patients, struggling with the concept of expressing themselves in words. And here, for some, Art has been the saving hope. I have had children emote through their Doodles, teens struggling to talk about what they are experiencing draw Graphic Images, Images of their thoughts, young adults express their rage though Colours, middle aged persons showcase their anxieties through Art and elderly describe their hope in the change in their Patterns of Drawing. And this has helped me modify the medications to help them improve their quality of life.
I have been fortunate to work with an excellent Arts Based Therapist who has taught me some valuable lessons which have translated into my work and personal life. One of these was that there are no mistakes in art, only opportunities. Such a beautifully empowering idea, isn’t it? It makes you ponder about the pressure we put on ourselves not to make a mistake, but in Art every mistake is an opportunity to redefine whatever we are showcasing and an invitation to make it our own creation. This thought has made me so much kinder to myself, because I would often criticise myself if there were mistakes. In the pursuit of perfection, I would lose my sense of appreciation for what is. I am now more mindful of that.
I now look at Art Therapy as a valuable tool I can offer patients who are so inclined, to be expressive, to vent emotions and to reflect and meditate on their own goals and honestly, I have seen some wonderful transformations! Whether it is making Art or viewing others Art, this form of Therapy, believes in the expression of creativity as a means of fostering, healing and promoting recovery from some serious mental health concerns. I have seen it at work in patients with anxiety, depression, personality disorders, sleep cycle disorders and PTSD. It can be used alone or in conjunction with other forms of therapy like CBT, group therapy or the gestalt approach to bring about an increased self-awareness and shift towards self-development in the patient. But it is hard work and it requires dedication. Just like any other change you want to bring permanently in your life, whether it is healthy eating, regular exercise, better sleep hours, mental health through Art Therapy will require your motivation and commitment.
If you feel, this might be the approach for you to address your mental health concerns or goals for self-development, do consider reaching out to an Arts based Therapist. You will need someone who has studied both Psychology and Arts based therapy to work with and you may need to speak to the person before you decide the fit, but do reach out! We are in difficult times and in the process of making sense of our struggles. We may need a helping hand and it is completely ok to ask for it.
For me personally, Art is a wonderful medium to just be ME! Imperfect, Vulnerable yet Beautiful!
Dr. Wilona Annunciation (MD) Consultant Psychiatrist at ‘Institute for Psychological Health’ & ‘Prafulta: Center for Psychological Wellness’