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Art Therapy and Mental Health: From Darkness, a Beautiful View

Our understanding of the relationship between art and mental health is complex. Because artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath committed suicide, we assume that art and mental illness are linked. When we ban books or label music as “explicit,” we treat art as potentially harmful to the mental wellbeing of ourselves or others. Still other times, we turn to art for solace, insight and healing, as when we play music to change our mood or reflect on a painting or poem to change our perspective for the better.

What psychiatrists, therapists and other mental health professionals are now learning is the incredible positive impact art can have in a therapeutic setting. According to Megan Robb, certified art therapist at the National Institutes of Health, “When traumatic memories are stored in the brain, they’re not stored as words but as images. Art therapy is uniquely suited to access these memories.” And not only can art help us access trauma, art is also positioned to help us process that trauma on our way to healing. According to Robb, by using art to draw trauma out into the open where it can be identified and addressed, art allows us to have “an active involvement in [our] own healing.”

Art Therapy at Prairie View

Prairie View has embraced the powerful role art can have in a therapeutic setting. Art therapy has been part of both inpatient and outpatient services throughout Prairie View’s history. Ian Gingrich-Gaylord is an art therapist at Prairie View.

Ian Gingrich-Gaylord

“I work with many people who come to the hospital in crisis, and art making may be the farthest thing from their minds. When people come to art therapy groups, however, they find that they are able to express themselves meaningfully through taking part in the creative process. I often hear from people that they found art therapy to be one of the more helpful components of their treatment, despite initially feeling suspect or ambivalent about any effect it may have,” Gingrich-Gaylord says.

Art can also play an active role in supporting those who suffer from mental illness.

“A Beautiful View” is an exhibition of fine art featuring area artists and a fundraiser for Prairie View. The event’s proceeds will go toward treating mental illness and addiction disorders. “When people reach out to Prairie View, they may feel like they are in a dark, ugly place,” says Misty Elder, Prairie View’s director of Advancement. “They often have experienced the worst in life and feel lost. But in the darkness, even the smallest shift, like the turn of a kaleidoscope, will reveal a beautiful view. Prairie View hopes this event will remind people to look beyond mental illness and discover beauty.”

Though one in four people has a mental illness, social stigma keeps the suffering from seeking help. They suffer in silence due to shame or embarrassment.

“We must stop thinking of mental illness as a deficiency or disgrace,” Elder says. “Instead, we should recognize it as a unique way someone interacts with the world.”

In Art as Therapy, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong suggest seven ways art can play a healing role for those who are suffering. According to the authors, art can serve a therapeutic purpose in seven ways:

  1. Art helps us remember: “Art is a way of preserving experiences, of which there are many transient and beautiful examples, and that we need help containing.”
  2. Art inspires hope: “The more difficult our lives, the more a graceful depiction of a flower might move us. The tears…are in response not to how sad the image is, but how pretty.”
  3. Art helps us face our sorrow: “Art can offer a grand and serious vantage point from which to survey the travails of our condition.”
  4. Art helps us find balance: “Art can save us time — and save our lives — through opportune and visceral reminders of balance and goodness that we should never presume we know enough about already.”
  5. Art helps us understand ourselves: “An elusive part of our own thinking, our own experience, is taken up, edited, and returned to us better than it was before, so that we feel, at last, that we know ourselves more clearly.”
  6. Art encourages us to achieve growth: “Engagement with art is useful because it presents us with powerful examples of the kind of alien material that provokes defensive boredom and fear, and allows us time and privacy to learn to deal more strategically with it.”
  7. Art aids us in appreciating our lives: “Art is one resource that can lead us back to a more accurate assessment of what is valuable by working against habit and inviting us to recalibrate what we admire or love.”

A Beautiful View

Join Prairie View in celebrating the power of art from 6 to 8 p.m., Thursday, June 4 at the Carriage Factory Art Gallery, 128 E. Sixth St., Newton. Some art will be sold through silent auction, and a live auction of selected pieces will begin at 7:15 p.m. Tickets for “A Beautiful View” are $10 in advance, $15 the day of the event. To purchase tickets in advance, contact Brandy Beer at 316-284-6443 or 800-992-6292.

NB: For a moving, in-depth examination of de Botton and Armstrong’s Art as Therapy, visit Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog:

About Prairie View

Prairie View has a passion for helping people live well and relate to one another in a positive, healthy manner. By offering a complete range of mental and behavioral health services for children, adolescents, adults, older adults and families, Prairie View treats depression, anxiety disorders, marital and family conflicts, aging issues, addictions and more.

Founded in 1954, Prairie View is the state’s only faith-based non-profit behavioral and mental health center with locations in Newton, east and west Wichita, Hillsboro and McPherson. Prairie View serves as the Community Mental Health Center for Harvey, Marion and McPherson counties.