The pandemic triggered a 25 percent increase in depression and anxiety around the globe, according to the World Health Organization. As an outlet, many people turned to writing, drawing, painting, knitting, and other crafts (surveys show that the interests in arts & crafts also climbed 25% during 2020-2021!).
Making art as a form of mental health treatment has a long history; it dates back to the mid-20th century, when soldiers returning from the battlefields of World War II were left with a condition that was known as “shell shock.” Today, this is now called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Veterans painted, drew, sculpted, and made other forms of art to help process what they’d witnessed and experienced at war.
“They struggled with traditional forms of medical and therapeutical intervention,” says Girija Kaima, the president of the American Art Therapy Association (AATA), in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine. “Experiences like trauma are very difficult to articulate into words, so therapies that can support and connect patients with nonverbal expression are really the foundation of the creative arts therapies.”
Research has found that making art can activate reward pathways in the brain. Studies that measured cortisol levels in participants’ saliva samples showed that making art can reduce stress, lower anxiety levels, and improve mood.
Various studies have also looked at its benefits among specific populations: It’s been linked with reduced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression among Syrian refugee children and lower levels of anxiety, PTSD, and dissociation among children who were victims of sexual abuse, for example. Art therapy can help reduce pain and improve patients’ sense of control over their lives.
While not everyone has an inclination towards art, the benefits of creating art are accessible to all and can be achieved with low-cost materials – the struggle is to incorporate art into daily life.
Here are a few tips on how educators and parents can help adolescents benefit from aspects of “art therapy” in their classrooms and homes: