Schizophrenia and Art Making

  • I attended the American Psychiatric Association convention.  This month's Schizophrenia News: May 2014 will be a review of the latest research presented at the poster sessions.


    The first session I'll review is Art Making in Patients with Mental Illness: Barinder Singh, M.D. Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.


    Dr. Singh offered a resounding "Yes!" to the claim that doing art has therapeutic benefits.


    According to the Background:


    "Art can be used for facilitating emotional expression, increasing sense of control, promoting inner strength and sense of purpose and reducing stress and isolation.  Art making enhances self-worth and identity through providing opportunities to demonstrate continuity, challenge and achievement."

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    The review of the narratives of the participants in the study yielded 3 story lines: In the moment, Clearing the way emotionally, and Art as a Haven.


    The benefits are clear: "The story lines show existence being affirmed, confirmed and proclaimed through artistic expression and the experience of mental illness changing both the patient and her art."


    This poster session had an indelible impression on me unlike the others for one compelling reason: I was an artist ever since I was a young kid.  In high school, I chose as my two electives art courses.  After I got out of the hospital in 1987, when I was 22, I stopped doing my art.


    Two years ago at 47 I took it up again and painted a sunflower in oils.  In April I took an art course and discovered a sure-fire art-as-therapy tactic: collage.  Taking words and images from magazines to express visually how you feel and to articulate in color your goals for your life: mirrors the benefits of the 3 story lines. 


    Collage can be the autobiography of your future self.  Making collages and reviewing them routinely can instill in you self-confidence.  In some ways, collages are iconic unlike words on the page that don't jump alive in your mind the way visual images do.


    This graphic representation of your talents and traits and personality is soul-satisfying.  Use whatever words and photos sing out to you.  I was drawn to the words "optimism" and "victory."


    Another source of inspiration for the future is to create a vision board: get a corkboard and push pins and tack up things you can use to visualize an even better life.


    I created a vision board five years ago using photos and fortune cookies and other talismans.  You can pin up on your own board anything that uplifts you to dream.


    Using collages and vision boards in an art therapy or art making session at a day program might prove to have benefits too.  Art making, according to Dr. Singh's research, can help individuals "deal with their illness in ways support groups and art therapy cannot."


    Re-thinking what's on offering at a traditional day program is imperative because from firsthand experience I'm not a fan of sending a young person to a regular day program.  If I could've been encouraged to continue my art when I was younger, if I had my own belief that it would help me greatly, would that have changed things? 


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    Alas, this is a big "what if?" in my life yet I want to underscore that all mental health staff should consider adding art making to their programs along with regular medication treatment for individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia.


    The supposed lack of an evidence base for art making is a false barrier.  My own art making is what got me through the hard times as a kid.  Returning to art making as an older person has long been my dream and already I can see a difference in my life from doing my art again.


    I'm a firm believer in the power of art to transform a person's life for the better.  It's like riding a bicycle: you won't forget how to do it and can get into it after years of missing it.  If you haven't done it before, why not try it out before ruling it out?


    I'm an artist and athlete as well as a writer.  One thing I know: having this "sense of self": an identity apart from the illness: is the number-one tactic for a person to take control when faced with a challenge.  You might cook or sculpt or write fiction as other outlets of self-expression.  Whatever you do to express yourself is good.


    Art is a way to become who you are and like yourself without limits.  Doing art can make you feel good.  It can give you the confidence to take other risks in your life.


    I'll end here by echoing Dr. Singh's message: Art making is life-affirming.


Published On: May 09, 2014