When Words Aren’t Enough

The benefits of art are widely recognized. It wires the brain for successful learning and cultivates an open mind. But art can do more than improve your thinking. Research suggests that it can be therapeutic for your mental health. Art therapy, like other expressive therapies such as music, dance, and drama, is gaining ground as a critical tool for counselors and mental health professionals. Art therapists use art and creativity to promote mental healing and well-being in a broad range of people—from young children to war veterans, to those suffering from psychological disorders.

            The field of art therapy is grounded in two main principles. The first is that the process of making art can be profoundly healing. The second is that art can be a form of symbolic communication, helping people convey and understand their emotions through creative expression. Art therapy is based on the belief that visual symbols and images are the most basic, comprehensible form of human communication. Images produced in the art-making process can help externalize a person’s inner blocks, conflicts, and fears.

            “What makes art therapy so effective,” says Marygrace Berberian, Director of Art Therapy Initiatives for New York City public schools, “is that it addresses trauma that can often not be treated through left-brain, language-based therapeutic practices.” Art therapy stimulates the right brain, tapping into subconscious images  which can release emotions and help regulate mental health.

            “When traumatic memories are stored in the brain, they’re not stored as words but as images,” explains Megan Robb, an art therapist at NIH’s Clinical Research Center. “Art therapy is uniquely suited to access these memories.” Therapists like Robb encourage patients to visualize and then draw, paint, or sculpt the feelings that they’re unable—or perhaps unwilling—to verbally express. Once patients create the images, they form words to describe them. They identify and interpret meanings behind the imagery, often through personal narratives. This process externalizes the trauma by bringing it out of isolation and, through art, into a positive exchange with the therapist. The analysis of artwork allows patients to gain insight into their emotions and constructively work through their problems. This process, Robb says, gives the patients “active involvement in [their] own healing.”

            Today, the number of people benefitting from art therapy is on the rise—from individuals suffering from disorders like depression or autism, to survivors of trauma stemming from abuse, combat, or natural disaster. Art therapy helps patients resolve emotional conflicts, reduce anxiety and stress, manage behavior and addictions, and achieve self-awareness. And aside from the life-affirming pleasures of art making, other key benefits of art therapy to mental health include:

  • Self-discovery. Art therapy helps patients undergo an emotional catharsis by helping them acknowledge their subconscious feelings and behavioral patterns.
  • Personal Fulfillment. Creating a tangible art piece helps develop one’s sense of achievement, which boosts confidence and self-esteem.
  • Empowerment. Art therapy assists patients in visualizing emotions that they cannot articulate verbally, giving them a sense of control over those feelings.
  • Personal healing. Emotional trauma can be effectively treated with art therapy, which provides a safe outlet for feelings such as fear, guilt, and anger.
  • Stress relief. Art therapy can help ease anxious behaviors, as well as chronic stress that can lead to depression.

            For New York teacher and high school guidance counselor Kelvin Ramirez, art therapy provides an effective vehicle for creative expression that moves beyond words. He feels this to be especially true for teens who may be too embarrassed to talk about their problems or worried about what their peers may think. “I believe that anything we create artistically is a representation of ourselves or something that we’re trying to deal with,” says Ramirez. “Through the metaphor of the art that’s created, conversations can happen.” And according to Ramirez, these conversations are vital to help students understand how they become emotionally triggered.

            Art therapists themselves often possess a keen understanding of art, like Radnor High School alumni Jayne Levenberg. Levenberg credits her experience at RHS as the springboard to a rewarding profession in art therapy. “I discovered my love for art in Mr. Barrett’s class,” explains Levenberg, “and it inspired the research that led to my career choice.” Levenberg is an art therapist and mental health counselor for The Renfrew Center, where she works with children hospitalized for chronic illness and women suffering with eating disorders. With 16 locations around the U.S., including one in Radnor, the residential facility has helped over 65,000 adolescent girls and women with eating disorders and related mental health issues. At Renfrew, women express their feelings creatively and explore the image of their body through body tracings. The artwork created provides an account of progress made during treatment.

            The use of art therapy as a diagnostic tool for identifying mental illnesses dates back to the late 19th Century, when French psychiatrists Ambrose Tardieu and Paul-Max Simon studied the symbolism in the artwork of the mentally ill. They discovered recurring visual elements in the drawings of patients with specific mental illnesses. In the 1940s, educator and therapist Margaret Naumburg was one of the first people to define art therapy as a form of psychotherapy. Often referred to as the founder of art therapy, Naumburg viewed art as a means to manifest unconscious imagery, an observation that reflected the predominant psychoanalytic ideas of the early 20th Century. She was greatly influenced by Freud and Jung, and often asked her patients to draw their dreams in addition to discussing them.

            By the middle of the 20th century, mental health facilities embraced art therapy programs after observing their success in promoting emotional healing and growth. Art therapy continued to expand, becoming an important tool for the evaluation and treatment of those struggling with mental health issues around the country. Today, top medical centers such as Massachusetts General, Johns Hopkins, and the Mayo Clinic include art therapy in their patient services.

            For Cathy Malchiodi, author of The Art Therapy Sourcebook and a leading expert in art therapy, uncovering personal meaning in one’s images is one of the most potent therapeutic aspects of art expression. Art therapy is a powerful means of knowing yourself and a powerful form of healing. “When words are not enough, we turn to images and symbols to tell our stories,” says Malchiodi. “And in telling our stories through art, we find pathways to wellness, recovery and transformation.”