Although the therapeutic value of art has perhaps always been evident, ‘art therapy’ was established in the mid 20th century. Edward Adamson (the ‘father of art therapy’) broke from the norms of therapy by establishing an open art studio that adopted a far freer approach for the therapy of mental patients, who were at the time often excluded from society, living in poor conditions in mental asylums. Adamson exhibited the art from many of his patients in order to challenge the public’s perception of people with mental illnesses, proving their creativity, humanity, and ability to heal and develop.
Since then, the technique has grown and established itself in the therapy community, and is now used in a huge variety of ways, ranging from children suffering from post-traumatic stress (as we have seen with Art Refuge UK), to prison inmates, to cancer patients, to the elderly in old people’s homes. Being non-verbal, art is particularly useful for people who cannot express their problems through more traditional forms of therapy - severe stress or trauma can shut down the part of the brain that deals with language, rendering people unable to talk about their experiences. Doing something creative offers a more visual and tactile approach, which can help the brain ‘open up’ again, and patients may slowly begin to speak again as they create, the conversation with the therapist feeling more natural and relaxed as it takes shape as a narrative of the art the patient is making.
Art can also be a ‘distraction’ from whatever is troubling the patient, sometimes providing an escape from even the worst illnesses, and can build a sense of self worth and personal control that offers stability in what might be an otherwise unstable and stressful life. Studies have even demonstrated art can slow memory loss in Alzheimer patients, as being creative stimulates the brain and keeps it active.
Some of the examples used here are obviously extreme cases of the value of art therapy, but its importance can be seen on smaller scales, even helping the odd stressed Cambridge student! I think everyone needs reminding of the importance of doing something creative now and again, despite being often so busy with other things. “I’m rubbish at art” is no excuse, as it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, and can be something as small as a doodle (which Georgina has written about before on this blog!). So don’t wait for the next Blake postcard sale to be creative - get away from your desks and get arty. As Picasso once said, “art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life”, and I’m not going to argue with that.