The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of the partners.
“Hope is like peace. It is not a gift from God. It is a gift only we can give one another.” – Elie Wiesel
Having survived the Holocaust, who wiser than Elie Wiesel to remind us that in times of chaos, confusion, combating an unprecedented global nightmare that hope is something we not only need but can also give one another. Hope becomes the cornerstone of working through mental health struggles in a time where we are confronted with not just the fear of contracting the virus but for our friends and family, for the change in lifestyle and restricted movement, unemployment, homeschooling or no access to school/activities for children, the lack of physical contact, the increased exposure for some in violent or difficult environments.
Health workers globally have also reported an increase in their struggles with mental health.
Billions of people confined either voluntarily or compulsorily negotiating the challenge of uncertainty that still looms larger than life. The feeling of persistent fear and chaos makes us more prone to anxiety, depression, trauma and stress-related disorders, grief for those having lost loved ones to the virus as well as increased feelings of frustration, loneliness, sadness, exhaustion, irritability and anger in day to day interactions.
While the UN has urged governments across the world to take mental health consequences seriously and ensure widespread availability of resources; countries continue to struggle to mitigate the physical health and economic impact of the pandemic and thus mental health is left up to the mental health community. However, in the last couple of months, there has been a rise in access to a range of mental health resources including teletherapy, helplines, apps and online support groups that have surfaced to allow an increase in access to trained mental health professionals.
As an Arts-Based Psychotherapist, I see creativity as a key to healing. The core focus is utilizing and manipulating art media that we can control, allowing another space for the release of emotions, deriving pleasure from the process as well as a sense of mastery from creating something that one is proud of. This time has allowed a large section of people to explore their creativity from engaging with the arts to food, their hair, podcasts, upcycling, ideas and innovation springing up in every corner.
Art Therapy is grounded in both psychology and neuroscience; and since the right hemisphere of the brain specializes in perception and synthesizing nonverbals including, facial expressions, music, gestures; the arts have a strong role to play in the treatment of trauma which has a strong neurological basis in how it is processed, especially the disconnect between the cognitive and nonverbal (image-symbol) memories of trauma.
Post Covid-19 or in a world that has adjusted to the virus armed with vaccines etcetera the mental health impact will still remain as communities find their strength and resilience to work through the struggles that will persist or past traumas that we will fight to work through. The arts, and exploring the therapeutic process that allows healing through groups and that can be integrated into our lifestyles moving forward will be the key to manage the overwhelming mental health burden that is and will be created.
The bilateral and multidirectional nature of creativity is healing and helps rebuild the sensory and physical integration that the traumatic experience often splits. The art-materials help individuals self-regulate both behaviour and emotion and the art-making process and the content are integral parts of treatment that help to explore, comprehend and elicit verbal and nonverbal communication within an attuned therapeutic relationship to build resilience.
While Arts Based Therapy requires a trained Arts-Based Psychotherapist to work with a client struggling with their mental health, we can incorporate a range of art based interventions grounded in creativity into our everyday lives to enhance positivity, joy, wellbeing, reduce stress, enhance life skills including problem-solving, interpersonal and intrapersonal communication, understanding the self and empathy.
From resistive media like stones, sticks, wood, fallen leaves, petals, old electronics or cardboard to recycle that can be used to collage, create puppets, build their own puzzles, tell stories, upcycle and create usable items, allow children and adults alike to explore and push their creative buttons as well as challenge them to problem solve using abstract objects that they can bring together to create something meaningful allows for emotional and cognitive integration, kinaesthetic engagement and if done as a group, a family or a dyad also allows for spaces to build better communication beyond words.
While fluid art media like paint, watercolours, using spices or plants to create colour, malleable clay, mud and sand allow for an amplification of emotion that an individual may otherwise resist expressing to the self or others.
Creating music, either through instruments available or percussion instruments that can be created from household items as well as body percussion especially in groups or dyads allows for reducing stress, boosting awareness and the immune system, processing trauma, enhancing emotional and interpersonal communication and cognitive functioning.
Listening to music helps organize the firing of nerve cells in the part of the brain responsible for higher functions as well as altering mood states based on tempo, tone and key.
Utilizing body movements (not just dance) in different rhythmic or free patterns allows individuals to express themselves through a nonverbal sensory level that allows individuals to tap into a range of emotions with activities like the five rhythms and authentic movement to progressive relaxation, Tai Chi and mindful breath-based work as well as working with a partner or group to enhance connectivity through techniques like mirroring.
From journalism which can often be both cathartic as well as a narrative process, allowing us to chronicle difficulties and strengths through our lives, building perspective and strength to utilizing free writing techniques given by theorists like James Pennebaker where the client is asked to write without editing themselves for a period of 20 minutes allowing for a cathartic release.
Poetry, songwriting and story writing allows individuals to use their creativity to express themselves through symbols and metaphor to amplify the concrete expression of powerful thoughts and emotions allowing one to regain a sense of autonomy over our narrative.
Regardless of age and socio-economic strata “creativity” and the use of what we have both within and around us as the medium of expression and transformation allow art therapy to transcend through different spaces. The more creative we can become as the art therapist, the less we are bound by our conventional use of “typical” art media, resources and space. We don’t need paint to paint, or large studio spaces to move, natural resources, outside spaces can often also allow for safety and change where we don’t have the luxury of what is often mentioned in our books.
As a people, we will need to prioritize compassion over everything, to be kinder and more aware of the varied range of struggles people around us would have experienced. Compassion over timelines, over exams, over the expectation of perfection; professional and or personal. If there is anything to learn from a time like this, it’s that there are things in the world bigger than a board exam, a party/event, a particular way of working.
Perhaps to look at what some of those things are at the core of which lies support for oneself, and the ones around us to facilitate a safer, stronger world where we have time to talk, to dance, to play, to hurt but find our fight, to water our plants, to be less afraid of creating, to prioritize humanity over academic grades, to stand up for equality and for love, to question our judgement and learn to unlearn.
Because struggle and strength are not mutually exclusive; but the support individuals need to learn how to work through and carry their struggles that inform their strength is what change will look like as we come out on the other side of this pandemic. That is really when we begin to scratch the surface of how we can support those struggling with mental illness as a community and perhaps work towards a preventive ideology.