More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Art Therapy Helpful for Some Schizophrenic Patients
Friday, November 30, 2007

The creative impulse resides at the heart of the human condition. Art, in its many forms, allows us to marvel at the amazing capacities of the mind and its ability to construct often stunning material from empty space. The concept of art as therapy, while often considered unscientific, has a long history of study; "art therapy" has been a valid liberal arts major for more than 40 years, and psychiatrists have been studying their patients' work far longer. The approach most often finds a home in adult inpatient psychiatric units, and studies have reported patients more likely to complete therapy regimens if art classes played a part. Just as crayons and construction paper allow kindergarteners to further explore what makes them unique, the act of creation, minor as it may seem, can help those with mental illness understand and cope with their conditions.

Of course, medication and regular therapy sessions are the first and most essential lines of defense against schizophrenia; "toughing it out" and trying to alleviate symptoms simply by developing one's creative hobbies is not an acceptable option. But patients must often try multiple drug cocktails over extended periods before arriving at a successful treatment equation, and many continue to experience some of the disorder's most extreme symptoms even while effectively medicated. For an encouraging (if decidedly small) number of patients suffering from schizophrenia and similarly punishing mental illnesses, the ability to express through creative imagery the pain they cannot understand or rationally explain actually affords some sense of relief and accomplishment. Art can, at times, very effectively convey emotions and desires without requiring the responsible individuals to explain and elaborate on their motivations and thought processes. Some of the unconscious sensations revealed through this work may, with the help of a professional therapist, allow patients to better understand what motivates them and how they can counteract the often devastating effects of their conditions.

While some of history's best-known artists have been informally diagnosed with schizophrenia or related conditions long after their deaths (Van Gogh and Edgar Allen Poe are perhaps the most prominent examples), and some, such as British photographer Stuart Baker-Brown, are actually confirmed schizophrenics, the concept of the "mad genius" holds perhaps too much weight in popular mythology. The purpose of art therapy is not to earn money or renown for these patients or to discover the next hot trend in "outsider" art.

Schizophrenia is a chronic condition. No true cure exists, and those following all the right treatment steps still need stability, support and some form of ongoing reassurance that they are valuable individuals, not simply "cases" to be treated and dismissed as unable to make any sort of meaningful contribution to society. Art, in addition to the love and concern of friends, loved ones and mental health professionals, may, in small but significant ways, help fill that need.
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