Prescribing paintbrushes: Artistic expression as a treatment for mental illness

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Stephen Turnullo/Courtesy

From medications to therapeutic treatments, psychiatrists continue to search for the next breakthrough to combat severe mental illnesses. But, unbeknownst to many, some of the most effective treatment can take the form of a paintbrush, a blank canvas or even an empty stage.

A number of counseling centers and rehabilitation facilities in the Berkeley area practice expressive arts therapy among the services they provide, expanding the boundaries of therapeutic treatment and capitalizing on the restorative qualities of creative outlets.

At the Berkeley Creative Wellness Center, or CWC, clients, or “members” as they are referred to by the program, gather to unleash their creativity and engage in the production of artistic pieces. These individuals suffer from a range of severe and persistent mental disorders, from anxiety and depression to schizophrenia.

The facility provides a variety of voluntary activities with different focuses, many of which place emphasis on the integration of art practice. An art room acts as an open studio throughout the day, with an available art teacher and wide range of supplies.

Members also work on specific projects in a more focused art therapy group, where they are given prompts and encouraged to share their work. There are many diverse forms of artistic expression practiced by members, from acrylic painting to creative writing.

“It’s just amazing … the different work that comes out,” said program Director Merrie Sennett.

CWC forms part of Bonita House, Inc. a private, nonprofit mental health agency that provides a variety of rehabilitation services for individuals with severe psychiatric disabilities. Many of the resources provided through CWC take the form of group interaction with different focuses, including skill-building as well as men’s, women’s and recovery groups. CWC serves approximately 130 individuals every year.

“Our program has always had a really strong emphasis on art,” Sennett said. She explained that the artistic element of the program was largely developed by Arline Rodini, an art teacher at Berkeley adult school and a licensed psychotherapist who taught classes at CWC. Rodini was also responsible for putting together the exhibit, “From Isolation to Connection,” which displayed art created by individuals with mental illnesses and was featured in the ASUC Art Studio gallery.

Sennett, who has been the program director at CWC for more than four years, described a typical day at the center, where members can choose to participate in different group activities, exercise their creative instincts in the art room, or participate in art therapy.

Although all members have been diagnosed with a severe mental illness, they demonstrate a wide variety of functional levels. However, regardless of the state of their mental health, the emotional and cognitive effects of producing art seem to be universal.

“The idea is to follow the client in various ways to help them give expression to what’s in their soul.”

Armand Volkas

“The process of doing art … can essentially calm a person and help people get out of that stress response … which is sort of the underpinnings of a lot of distress and disorder,” Sennett said. According to a study in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy has been shown to demonstrate significant improvements in a variety of symptoms relating to mental health disorders.

But the observations Sennett makes on a daily basis seem to provide enough evidence that art is a powerful tool for providing relief and rehabilitation for individuals afflicted with mental illnesses. Moreover, she claims the cathartic effects and calming sensations experienced through art production can provide an escape from the chaos and stress of everyday life.

Art by CWC member Crstal Lachman

Art by CWC member Crystal Lachman

This concept forms the basis of much of the treatment techniques practiced at the Living Arts Counseling Center in Emeryville, which also offers innovative psychotherapeutic services to clients, including expressive arts and drama therapy.

“Each art modality has its own healing powers,” said Armand Volkas, co-founder and Clinical Director of the Living Arts Counseling Center. Volkas is also a teacher at the California Institute of Integral Studies in both the drama and expressive arts therapy programs.

Drama therapy involves the use of acting, improvisation and psychodrama as therapeutic tools. According to Volkas, this form of therapeutic and creative expression can be beneficial in a variety of circumstances, including for purposes of problem solving, interpersonal relationships or in “rehearsal for life.” Drama encourages spontaneity and expressiveness, which allow for a restorative and cathartic experience. Volkas described drama in a therapeutic context as “a way to unlearn and relearn new ways of being.”

The Living Arts Counseling Center also utilizes expressive arts therapy, which involves multi-modal artistic expression, including painting, poetry and musical performance. Clients transition from one medium to the next according to their therapeutic needs and preferences. “The idea is to follow the client in various ways to help them give expression to what’s in their soul,” Volkas said.

These techniques are practiced with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, trauma and a number of other mental health issues. Human nature, regardless of the individual’s struggle with mental illness, typically responds well to art therapy.

Volkas explained that the efficacy of creative expression in a therapeutic context stems from the innate human tendency to learn through “play,” or by acting out pretend scenarios, as is often seen with young children. Drama therapy specifically allows clients to take an active role in confronting mental obstacles by rehearsing situations and acquiring new, embodied experiences.

“You create a reparative experience,” Volkas said, explaining this process in the context of treating victims of trauma. “It gives people a new memory.”

He continued to explain that art therapy has a similar effect, allowing individuals who are more introverted or have difficulty expressing their emotions to nonetheless reap the benefits of creative expression.

“I would love to see a world or a society that is interested in helping those of us who are less able, and has a lot more compassion and (is) more willing to acknowledge that people with mental illness are actually human and to get rid of the stigma.”

Merrie Sennett

Art forms as instruments for therapeutic release not only offer individuals rehabilitative benefits, but according to Sennett, simultaneously enable them to experience comfort and contentment.

“I see (members) enjoying themselves,” Sennett said, “which is important for everyone, but especially these folks.”

She explained that in addition to enduring the challenges of their disorder, many members of the CWC experience stigmatization, struggle economically, or are on Disability or Supplemental Security Income. “We are talking about people who do not have much in the way of pleasure in their lives … and they get to be creative … which is so important.”

Sennett hopes to see increases in the amount of available mental health resources, specifically in Alameda County, where a 2013 census revealed a 35 percent increase in the population of homeless individuals with a severe mental illness in just two years.

“I would love to see a world or a society that is interested in helping those of us who are less able, and has a lot more compassion and (is) more willing to acknowledge that people with mental illness are actually human and to get rid of the stigma,” she said.

The inclusivity of creative expression helps foster a sense of unity and understanding in organizations like CWC. Individuals are able to connect through artistic expression while experiencing a new and innovative platform for rehabilitation. Members of CWC also take pride in the work they create, which has been showcased in local cafes and even purchased by members of the community. “It’s really taking (members) seriously as artists,” she said.

Sennett recounted the story of a local disability attorney who was insistent upon adorning her office with artwork created by individuals with disabilities and decided to purchase art created by members of CWC. Some members have even sold their works independently.

“This is a place where it’s okay to be real and talk about what’s real and not put on a lot of false fronts,” Sennett said. “We really do a lot to focus on offering people kindness and acceptance.”

In addition to providing individuals with a positive expressive outlet, artistic modalities have the potential to open new doors to developments in mental health treatment and end negative stigma and judgement surrounding mental illness.

“Art is freeing,” said CWC member Crystal Lachman in a statement featured with her art in CWC’s online gallery. “It puts me on a moonlit path of discovery, transforming silence into expression, sorrow into beauty, and despair into hope.”

Contact Molly Nolan at [email protected].