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Art therapy offers an alternative to medication for depression and anxiety (Robin Roberts,

Article by Robin Roberts, Published on

Whether it’s music, clay or painting, research has shown that experiencing art makes us feel better. If only policymakers recognized the value.

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In 2004, Christine Long was in the prime of her life and at the top of her game. She was the executive director of a non-profit organization that helped parents cope with post-partum depression. She traveled internationally, speaking on the subject, and was in the midst of launching a workshop for doctors and nurses when a sudden onset of multiple sclerosis symptoms left the right side of her body paralyzed.

“I had gone from a fully functioning person with a job to all of a sudden, not. My retirement was immediate,” says Long, who spent several weeks in the hospital, followed by weeks of rehab learning how to walk, talk and see again. Grappling with her newfound reality, the Mississauga resident was understandably anxious and depressed. “I had to figure out who I was, what I was going to do and who I was going to be.” She was thrown a lifeline when the hospital referred her to a community program called Next Step to Active Living , which included arts classes for people living with brain injuries.

“I needed to use the other half of my brain, the creative, artistic half to work around those parts that had been injured and create new pathways,” she says. Long enjoyed the classes so much, she went on to take others at the Halliburton School of Art, where her cousin taught. “She told me that if I liked colour and could paint like a five-year-old, I could do a course. So I thought, I like colour and I could just about paint like a five-year-old…”

And, despite having to paint ambidextrously, since she still has limited use of her right hand, as well as double vision in one eye, she thrived in the art programs. “It has brought me so much joy. I’ve met extraordinary people who had similar circumstances. I even started to show some of my work and people started to buy it!”

A creative approach to healing

Art therapy reportedly took hold after the Second World War for soldiers suffering from PTSD . They often struggled with articulating their emotions, and traditional forms of treatment had little effect. But when they picked up a paint brush, piece of clay or musical instrument, they were able to express themselves non-verbally. Art therapy was soon adapted to help kids with ADHD, teens with depression, cancer patients with anxiety, and the elderly with loneliness.

Dr. Colin Saldanha, a Mississauga family physician and mental health advocate who had long championed non-pharmacological approaches to mental health, co-founded ArtsCare , a program that promotes the arts as a way to support those with mood disorders.

“Cortisol levels increase during times of grief, anger, frustration and depression,” he says. “On the other hand, feel-good hormones, such as endorphins and serotonin, surge when people are doing art or experiencing art. In fact, brain imaging shows this increase in positivity and translates into a better mental state, more calmness and serenity.”

Art means drop in doctor visits and hospitalizations

Mike Douglas, executive director of the Mississauga Arts Council (MAC), which administers ArtsCare, was struck by a report commissioned by a parliamentary committee in Britain that showed exposure to arts reflected a 37 per cent drop in doctor visits, and a 27 per cent reduction in hospital admissions, resulting in a savings of £216 per patient.

“That savings to the health-care system was the light bulb for me,” he says. “We have a phenomenally impactful way of helping people feel better, especially people who are vulnerable, through the self-confidence they gain, the chemicals released in their brain when they’re focused on something creative that is so beneficial and so inexpensive. Monumental, life-changing solutions that don’t require a lot of money, a new factory or drugs. The arts are the most exciting non-pharmacological solution out there and it’s totally under-utilized by the political industrial groups.

Prescribing art instead of drugs

While he waits for political groups to see the light, he and MAC continue to raise funds for mental health programs that utilize art.

Saldanha would also like to see art therapy operate in a more structured way, and to integrate with traditional medicine on a greater level.

“Family practitioners should be encouraging their patients, especially those who are anxious or depressed, to go for music or painting classes [rather than] reach for our pen and prescribe medication,” he says, adding that managing mental health should not always be the role of health-care providers. “We are not the be-all and end-all of managing these conditions. Art can play an integral part. [But] investing money by government is going to be difficult until there’s a huge lobby [to push for it]. In the health-care system, all the money goes towards treatment and we need to invest in prevention.”

Arts education specialist Dr. Brittany Harker Martin, an associate professor at the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education , knows all about using the arts as a form of prevention and promotion of mental health — she teaches students who will become teachers themselves in the educational arts.

“I focus on how the arts are good for everyone and how our brain craves that kind of experience and responds very positively to it,” she says.

We need a bridge between science and policy

In her “ Brain Smoothies ” program, for example, Harker Martin, also a member of both the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary, teaches participants how to access healthy mental states and energize their mind through visual and tactile practice.

“It teaches wellness through art, not art,” she says, adding that people don’t come away with artistic skills, although they might. “The benefit is the process itself, not the product. You don’t have to have any talent or experience. It’s about the willingness to take the time to do it and to experience it. I call the program Brain Smoothies because you don’t drink one smoothie and be done with it. You need to keep up your nutrition, and this is the same. Regular access engages the mind in distinctive ways that we don’t often have the opportunity to do in society.”

Like Saldanha and Douglas, Harker Martin advocates for a much-needed bridge between science and policy.

“The field of arts education has been promoting and advocating these things for decades,” she says. “The science is starting to catch up but there’s just not enough yet that the policy makers are paying attention.”

Douglas agrees. “This is such an obvious win,” he says. “A dollar invested in the arts translates into $7 or $10 in economic activity. If you made that case for most businesses, you wouldn’t have any trouble finding investors. Everybody knows about the impact of these kinds of programs in seniors’ homes and in schools, and amongst vulnerable people who take them.”

For Christine Long, these art programs were life-changing, and she encourages others to try them if they can.

“Don’t worry if you can’t draw a figure, because I still can’t and I’ve taken two or three drawing classes,” she says. “That’s not the primary purpose. The primary purpose is to have fun. It’s to bring joy to you.”

Robin Roberts is a Vancouver-based writer.