Mental Health Therapy Needs Arts as Process and Product

mental health

Yet again, the disparity between women and men in the arts rears its ugly head when trying to discuss creativity and mental health. Women are disproportionately diagnosed with depression, anxiety and insomnia. But most of our well-known examples of artists suffering from mental health issues are men: Tennessee Williams, Vincent Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock. Sylvia Plath gets a mention because she committed suicide, an example of what you shouldn’t do.

How many of our most creative women artists in any discipline had mental health issues, either diagnosed or not? How much work is a processing of anxieties, fears, phobias, manias or bio-chemical imbalances? On the flip side, how many creative pieces are we missing because a woman decided to medicate rather than create? Best of all possible worlds, perhaps, is when an artist does both: seeks to heal herself through any multiple of modalities and creates work to share.

What is the link between creativity and mental illness for women? What triggers our mental health needs and how do we use creative outlets to alleviate our illnesses? Frida Kahlo famously painted her pain from illness, an horrific accident, alcoholism and a philandering husband. If she’d taken Prozac, would we have been blessed with her body of work, which has inspired countless other women to not succumb to our modern society’s limited view of pleasant female bodies?

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Douglas Eby, in an article called “Depression, Women and Creativity,” quotes author and consultant C. Diane Ealy, Ph.D., from her book The Woman’s Book of Creativity:

Many studies have shown us that a young girl’s ideas are frequently discounted by her peers and teachers. In response, she stifles her creativity… perhaps the most insidious and common manifestation of repressed creativity in women is depression.

“Performance artist Bobby Baker was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 1996, followed by a breast cancer diagnosis, she set out to capture her experience and her journey to recovery in 711 drawings that would serve as her private catharsis over the course of more than a decade.” writes Maria Popova over on Brain Pickings. This English artist had gallery showings after the fact of her cathartic paintings.

Virginia Woolf (another beware scenario) was manic depressive or bipolar, triggered by a number of factors. Bipolar scholar John McManamy reported, “According to Dally, who is a psychiatrist: ‘Virginia’s need to write was, among other things, to make sense out of mental chaos and gain control of madness. Through her novels she made her inner world less frightening. Writing was often agony but it provided the ‘strongest pleasure’ she knew.’ ” One can surmise the same was true for Plath.

I write this column having recently been diagnosed with a mild case of depression and a generalized anxiety. I’m now on Prozac myself. But I’ve also been writing more, both personal work (some kept private, others shared publicly) and for The Marbury Project and on my book-in-progress. In the depths of my depression, I felt an urge to write it out and it appears to be helping.

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Best of all worlds: healing and sharing.

Many authors, including Kelly Brogan and Jonathan Zuess, believe that mild depression is a gift, in that it is a way your body is telling you something is out of whack, whether that’s physically, emotionally or spiritually. My depression led me back to taking better care of my physical form and getting back to my creative writing roots, something I’d let lapse since becoming a mother. I should add here: I’m not a doctor; your mileage may vary; please seek the help of [many] trained professionals. I started seeing a therapist, too, when I started medication, and changed my diet and exercise regime, and recommitted to a daily meditation practice. I still have a lot of work to do — while the depression has lifted, my underlying anxiety and other issues will be a constant reminder of that work. I now trust that my creative practices will also help bring balance to my relationship with myself and the world.

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Validating the use of art as a therapeutic practice, there are art, writing, music and dance therapy modalities. The American Art Therapy Association defines art therapy as “a mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the art therapist, use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.” The American Dance Therapy Association, similarly, “defines dance/movement therapy as the psychotherapeutic use of movement to further the emotional, cognitive, physical and social integration of the individual.” Duke University Hospital runs a Writing and Wellness program, both for patients, staff and the community.

Women (and men and kids) need each and every tool available in their box of mental health care. Sharing art is both a way to process mental problems for our own well-being and to connect with others who are feeling similarly uncertain, confused and worried they’re “not normal.”

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  • Bonnie Kate Austin

    Love this!

    • Devra Thomas

      Thanks!