Mental Health and the Arts

Alyssa Shepherd discusses how beneficial the arts can be in the treatment and prevention of mental health issues. 

In July 2017, the All-Party Parliamentary Group On Arts, Health and Wellbeing published an inquiry report into the beneficial impact that the arts can have on health and wellbeing, and specifically mental health.[1] The report draws upon extensive evidence from sixteen round-table discussions, at which more than three hundred people, including people working in the arts, health and social care, the prison service, academics, and clinicians, discussed the positive effects that the arts can have upon alleviating mental health issues. The report concludes by firmly asserting that the arts can be enlisted to improve our health and wellbeing. The present culture of healthcare within the National Health Service (NHS), however, places too much of an emphasis upon the technical-industrial and bureaucratic. As the report indicates, the formation and rolling development of those belonging to the medical professions is almost entirely science-based. Although members of the medical profession do, of course, strive to infuse this healthcare culture with genuine care and compassion, the profession more broadly has failed to acknowledge that the arts can complement and enrich the value of conventional medicine.

Art therapy has been harnessed by both artists and clinicians in recent years to engage with patients suffering from mental health issues and to help them explore their various difficult and painful life experiences. Within arts therapy, trained therapists assist patients in creating something, such as a drawing, a play, or a piece of music, in order to express their feelings. This is most helpful for those who may find it difficult to put their feelings precisely into words, and offers another medium by which we can communicate our thoughts, and thus reach solutions to alleviate negative automatic thinking. Therapists then guide patients in considering what they have created, and how this piece of art relates to their feelings and life experiences.

Arts therapy also offers the opportunity to overcome social isolation, through its promotion of group therapy. By sharing their experiences with others facing similar issues, patients learn how to work together to produce something, and gain a sense of peer support from their final achievements. Group arts therapies offer the opportunity to overcome anxieties related to socialising with other people, and the sense of loneliness attached to mental health issues, such as depression. The award-winning, Watford-based theatre company, May Contain Nuts, for example, improvises scenes that explore issues such as self-harm and suicide, and gives its members a sense of belonging to a community.[2]

The arts also provide a unique medium by which we can expose, reveal and educate people upon taboo subjects within society, such as mental health. Playwright Duncan MacMillan’s Every Brilliant Thing, explores suicide, depression, and their attendant difficulties, with unwavering candour and authenticity. It is productions, such as MacMillan’s, that educate audiences about how it truly feels to be depressed, anxious, suffering from personality disorders, and many others issues, all the while humanizing those who suffer from, and attempt to manage, such conditions. Theatre groups, such as May Contain Nuts, holds performances and workshops after their productions, to allow audiences to discuss and reflect upon the issues addressed in the performance. This also provides healthcare professionals with the opportunity to ask probing and open questions that a clinical setting simply does not offer the correct forum for.

Overall, the arts provide an abundance of benefits for patients struggling to manage their mental health, and for professionals striving to assist those patients. The arts can offer another medium by which patients can communicate their emotions and various struggles, form friendships and overcome feelings of loneliness and isolation, and educate others on living with mental health issues. The arts can enhance conventional medicine and traditional forms of psychotherapy, and need to be taken more seriously by healthcare professionals in the future.