Impact of Art Therapy on Mental Health

Suchismita Majumdar, Communications & Policy Officer, ESDEG

These days we hear a lot about Arts Therapy, but do you ever wonder like me what exactly is it? Arts Therapy can be defined as a type of expressive therapy that utilises the process of creating arts to improve physical, mental and emotional well-being. Arts Therapists use visual arts as therapeutic interventions believing that creative expression can aid an individual’s healing and improve their mental health and emotional well-bring. This form of therapy has its roots in two popular counselling theories namely the psychoanalytic and humanistic approach. The psychoanalytic theory believes that insight and healing can be prompted using visual arts by bringing unconscious feelings and memories to the surface. On the other hand, the humanistic approach is all about focusing on personal growth, self-expression, and self-actualisation through creative expression. There are various forms of Arts Therapy including Art which involves drawing and painting, Sculpture, Photography, Collage, Dance/Movement, Music and Drama.

Over the school summer holidays ESDEG’s Integrative Therapist Ms. Roda Ali conducted 5 Art Therapy workshops with the children from low-income households in Ealing. Art Therapy is one of the popular and recognisable forms of Arts Therapy. Through drawing and painting it provides an open ended and versatile medium of self-expression. According to the British Association of Art Therapists “Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses visual and tactile media as a means of self-expression and communication. Art therapists aim to support people of all ages and abilities and at all stages of life, to discover an outlet for often complex and confusing feelings, and foster self-awareness and growth.”

You can read more about this and its history in this Wikipedia post.

Some visuals from one of the art therapy workshops conducted by ESDEG over the summer

Each of the Art Therapy workshops conducted by ESDEG were of two-hour duration and attended by fourteen children on an average. These took place in Viking Community Centre’s big hall which even after spreading out the tables had plenty of empty space for the children to run around and play. This sense of space and freedom was particularly important for these children who live in overcrowded council flats often in unhealthy conditions.

The idea was to set up a non-clinical, welcoming and fun space for the children with enough space, plastic covers on the tables so that accidental spills could be managed easily, and display the art that they had created in previous workshops/ one-to-one counselling sessions on the walls. The children recognised their work and felt a sense of pride that their art was “up there” as they put it. In one of the workshops where I helped out, as I was pinning the art on the soft boards, some of the children gathered around telling me which piece was theirs and excitedly pointing out the colours they used, the difficult bits, the fun bits. Their sense of pride and ownership was evident and their enthusiasm was infectious.

In these free form workshops Ms. Ali supplied the children with papers, paints, brushes and crafting supplies, and asked them to have fun. While the children got creative, Ms. Ali and her volunteer Mariam circulated among the children chatting with them about what they were painting while helping them with their projects. There were other members of ESDEG staff present as well.

The children had a great time in these workshops and towards the end of summer these got so popular that there was a waiting list of more children wanting to join. We decided to keep the numbers small so that Ms. Ali could get a chance to spend some time with each child individually. The children produced some interesting pieces of art, some showed great aptitude and focus, some lost interest midway and had a better time playing and chasing each other around the big hall, then after a while they returned to their tables. The children helped each other, shared their art and crafting supplies with each other, chatted amongst themselves, displayed team spirit all the while having fun. Of course, there were some accidents with the colours, some spilling and impromptu colour fights.

How These Workshops Helped the Children

Improve Self Expression – The children could express their feelings and thoughts through the sensory and tactile creative process without needing to use words.

Strengthen Self-Awareness — In this safe and relaxed environment some of the participating children opened up, explored their emotions, and expressed their worries and fears. Some surprised themselves with the art they created and they reached out to Ms. Ali for reassurance. She explained to the children that there was nothing wrong in their art, they just needed to dig deeper to find their emotions and feelings, ask themselves if they were angry, upset, stressed about something and the reason behind it. This contributed to strengthened self-expression, self-awareness/emotional intelligence amongst the children.

Enhance Social Skills – Being part of a group meant that no child was under spotlight, this gave them the space and freedom to connect, bond and establish friendship with each other. This in turn enhanced their communication skills and boosted their social skills.

Learn Group Participation – During the workshops the children shared each other’s arts and craft supplies, learned from each other, observed each other’s art, sometimes offered their views, and felt pride in their friend’s work and acted as each other’s role model. The environment fostered a sense of bonhomie encouraging the children to help and co-operate with each other and learn how to be team players in a non-competitive setting.

Discover Interest/Talent – Through this process some children have discovered that they really enjoy creating art and have found a new hobby, while others realised that they have a creative aptitude which could be pursued in the future.

Boost Self-Esteem & Confidence – Completing a piece of art or a craft project gave the children a strong sense of accomplishment and a sense of pride and ownership which helped in strengthening their self-esteem and confidence in themselves.

Reduce Stress – Being in a fun environment in a group setting helped the children shift their minds from stress and worries and unwind. The setting stimulated their creativity and helped them focus while giving them the space to move around if they so desired.

Emotional Release – Through the creative process the children gained insight into their feelings, thoughts and behaviour which started the journey of processing those emotions and releasing pent-up emotions.

Develop Problem Solving Skills – Art making encouraged the children to think creatively and find unique solutions.

Also, during the workshops Ms. Ali noticed that a child may have undiagnosed SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) needs. She raised it with parents and signposted them to get professional support. Our SEND Support Team is helping the parents get early diagnosis for their child which we know would have a transformative impact on the child’s development and future.

Another very positive impact of these workshops was on Ms. Ali’s volunteer Mariam. The seventeen-year-old had always been interested in arts & crafts and when she got to know about these workshops she decided to volunteer on a whim. But after helping Ms. Ali run these workshops and working with the children, she has made up her mind that she would like to pursue Art Therapy and work with children in the future.

After the success of these workshops, we decided to host another one on the 23rd of October during our Mid Term Break Fun Day event.

With this we come to an end to the London Challenge Poverty Week 2023. We hope you have had a chance to read the blog posts we have been sharing over this week talking about food insecurity and hunger,