Van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows (1890).
May is mental health awareness month in the U.S., but all over the world, it’s a great time to check in with friends, family and yourself. As far as prevention goes, it’s hard to overestimate the impact of just showing up. Text your friend you haven’t heard from for a while; call your mom and actually listen to what she says; or just ask your intern how her day is going and mean it. The art world can be a cold and lonely place—but a tiny bit of effort can make it a whole lot more human.
Isn’t it worth it to shed a tiny bit of your ice queen intimidation factor if it means fewer nervous breakdowns at the gallery? If nothing else, fewer intern tears on the bathroom floor means less chance of you slipping in your Gucci loafers and breaking your wrist the day before the Venice Biennale. Return on investment, bitches.
But back to mental health awareness month. Although mental health issues are on the rise in the developed world, especially among young people, there’s some good news. Today, social taboos around mental health discussions are quickly falling away. Online and IRL, countless brave souls are speaking up about their struggles, normalizing a super stigmatized topic and urging others to get help. We might be struggling, but we’re not struggling alone.
As the field of psychology evolves, so do treatment methods. These days, there’s a type of therapy for everyone: dance therapy, wilderness therapy, mindfulness-based therapy, pet therapy, you name it. But one of the most exciting new fields of therapy—for us, at least—is, you guessed it, art therapy.
Practically since the advent of their field, psychotherapists have been borrowing from art teachers to help their patients express and resolve their problems. Similarly to the way dreams reveal a lot about someone’s inner preoccupations, the pictures people make reflect their deep, unconscious beliefs. Interpreting pictures is actually way simpler than you might think. No shamanism involved—people tend to draw pretty much exactly what they’re feeling. If you’re curious, pick up a book on the subject and you’ll be a master art therapist in no time (just kidding, do NOT try to treat anyone if you’re not qualified).
By studying their artwork, therapists and patients can work together to unpack the patient’s beliefs and help them evolve. Some even believe that the process of drawing something out can be cathartic and help people release mental blocks without having to work through them in a conscious way. The best part is that anyone can do this—no art degree required. Actually, amateurs might have the advantage here. When you’re not focused on creating a Work of Art, you’re freer to express the actual contents of your psyche.
Art therapy is just one of the many ways that art can boost your mental health. As psychology is starting to discover—and artists have known forever—making art is basically free therapy. Art often provides a cathartic outlet for our deepest, darkest feelings; there are countless historical examples of artists staving off mental illness through their practice.
Below, here are five ways that you can use art to boost your mental health.
1) Museum therapy
You know pet therapy? This is basically the same thing, except instead of sneaking your poodle into your college dorm, you get to visit your local art museum for free. At least that’s the program the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts rolled out last year. Partnering with Montreal physicians, the program allows doctors to prescribe free museum visits for their patients as side-effect-free medicine for their physical and mental conditions.
According to a Canadian physician, there is a growing body of research that shows that the arts have a positive effect on our mental and emotional wellbeing. Again, this is sort of common sense in the art community—although all your art fair-induced emotional breakdowns might beg to differ.
If the doctors in your area haven’t hopped on the museum bandwagon yet, nothing’s stopping you from taking matters into your own hands. Next time you need a mental health day, consider heading to the museum.
For starters, the space itself is soothing—quiet, cool and blank, museums are like little oases of Zen in the middle of an urban jungle. And then, of course, there’s the art itself. The aesthetic harmony of artwork (well, maybe not all contemporary art, but definitely the old stuff) does wonders to balance a stressed-out psyche.
Plus, the wealth of different perspectives and experiences that art captures can help you step outside of yourself and remember that the world holds limitless possibilities. Even the most drab, mundane experience can spark a beautiful artwork—you just have to learn to see it in the right light.
2) When in doubt, draw it out
Tracey Emin, Terribly Wrong (1997).
If you’re feeling anxious, frustrated, etc., but can’t logic your way through your feelings (hey, that’s why they’re called feelings, not thinkings), try drawing it out. Art taps into a different part of your brain than your rational mind (warning: this is not scientific advice), so channeling your energy into creating artwork can help you step out of the spiral of negative thoughts.
Seeing your problems on paper can also offer a degree of control—instead of this amorphous, all-consuming cloud of dementors in your head, you suddenly see them as something manageable that fits on a piece of 8.5 x 11 printer paper and can be analyzed and broken down. By taking your feelings and putting them outside of yourself, you’ll also increase your sense of control. No longer is the problem an integral part of you; by setting it down concretely on a piece of paper, it becomes just another situation that you can break down and conquer.
Finally, by drawing out your feelings, you’ll also begin to see that life’s challenges are actually opportunities to create something new. Already, you were able to use your angst to create this little artwork—why not take it one step further and use the whole situation as a chance for self-discovery and growth?
3) Distract yourself
Generally speaking, distracting yourself from the problem won’t make the problem go away. I learned this the hard way when, unfortunately, looking at memes for three hours didn’t make my taxes do themselves. The audacity!
There is, however, one important exception to this rule. When you’re feeling negative, brooding or depressed, distraction is just what the doctor ordered. Depression holds you in its grasps with repetitive, self-defeating negative thoughts. Nobody likes me. I’ll never be good at this. Why am I even trying. Everyone can somehow handle two jobs, a healthy relationship, five kickboxing classes a week and a social life that makes Studio 54 look like your grandma’s bridge club, and I can’t even figure out how to fold my underwear like Marie Kondo.
Not only are these thoughts totally false (really, the Marie Kondo method isn’t as hard as it looks!), but even if they were sort of true, it wouldn’t do you any good to believe them. How many stupid people do you know that succeed through sheer delusion? How many average-looking guys snag hot girlfriends purely through their totally displaced self-confidence? Fake it ‘till you make it, baby. Or, if you like, we all manifest our lives—our thoughts create our realities, and all those other New Age aphorisms you read in The Secret. Yes, it’s woo-woo, but the proof is in this chia pudding.
One way to slip out of this vicious mental quicksand is to refuse to give attention, and power, to those thoughts. The easiest way to do this is to simply say “not today, Satan” when you notice the inner dialogue ramping up and immediately focus on something else. And art, especially your favorite art, can be a wonderful distraction.
To jolt your mind into a more positive, engaged, optimistic place, choose art that makes you feel empowered and uplifted, or at least excited to engage in the world again. You might want to skip the Munch or Tracey Emin on this one—we’re going for life-affirming, here. Visual art can be great if that’s your thing, but otherwise, the more senses occupied, the better.
Put on your favorite album (and dance around in your underwear, even if you don’t feel like it!); play your favorite movie; read your favorite novel; whatever. Art has a wonderful way of reminding us that the world is so, so much bigger than our own little ego and its little problems. Focusing on art helps you step outside yourself and fill the space where self-pity and doubt used to be with wonder and appreciation for the huge multitude of experience that life has to offer.
4) Been there, drawn that
Whatever you’re struggling through, there are about 5 million artists that have been there, drawn that. Art is a treasure trove of human struggles, and although that sounds horribly depressing, it’s actually not. Mental health struggles can be horribly isolating, but art is a super-quick way to get inside someone else’s head in a way that’s almost impossible to do otherwise. You’ll soon realize that all across time and space, people have been thinking and feeling the exact same things as you.
From a purely statistical perspective, this makes sense. All of us humans come with the same basic operating system—what are the odds that you’re the only person ever that’s had this thought or feeling? Pretty slim. But if you don’t believe me, fine. I have countless paintings, novels, songs, movies and plays backing me up.
There’s a great Alan Bennett quote that goes like this: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
But it doesn’t have to be literature. Anytime you come across an artwork that does this for you, it doesn’t make the problem go away, but it is a comfort to know that someone has been there, lived that, and survived to make the picture. And so will you.
One of the major risk factors for mental health problems is isolation: loneliness, that feeling of being cut off from the rest of humanity. Many studies show that people who lack close, supportive relationships in their lives are much more at risk for mental illness. As our society grows more fragmented, this unfortunately includes a lot of us. And no, a stable-full of IG-friendly fremenies, or fake friends you just hang out with to drink and gossip, doesn’t count.
Still, there’s good news. By its very nature, art has a way of bringing people together. And unlike, say, an investment club, art forces you to put some heart into it, helping people bond on a deeper level. Artists have long lived in colonies, but you don’t have to be Picasso to appreciate this level of connection.
If you’re an artist, look around for opportunities in your area to connect with other artists. Join a workshop, or start one—why not? Many museums and community centers hold regular events for artists, aspiring artists, dilettantes and art lovers alike. Or just make an effort to hang out with other artists more, like Jerry Saltz suggested.
If IRL turns out to be a dead end, turn to the Internet. Today, hundreds of artist collectives, often grouped around special themes or missions like promoting minority art, women’s art or LGBTQ+ art, are literally at your fingertips. With this degree of specificity, you’re much more likely to discover people that you have something in common with, which may or may not be the case for IRL events. Plus, reaching out to someone in a dm is much less stressful than turning up alone to an event full of strangers.
But guess what—branching out and meeting new people isn’t even required. Hit up your own friends and suggest a monthly painting night, book night, casual film screening at home, whatever. I’ll bring the projector, you bring the wine and emotional support. Boom. Loneliness vanquished!
Text by Katya Lopatko
Images via Wikipedia, All Treatments, Smithsonian Magazine, Tate, @dyingbutfine, @poorlydrawnlines.
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Curator/Researcher in Residence at Art360 Foundation in partnership with International Curators Forum
Art360 Foundation - London, United Kingdom