art therapy buckets of pain with hand holding paintbrush

Bringing the Inside Out: the Role of Art in Healing and Recovery

As a trainee art psychotherapist, I’m frequently asked: what is the role of art in healing and recovery? If I had a pound for every time someone posed this question, I’d have enough money to print ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ on every billboard in London. That being said, my response is continually evolving, and I’d like to paint you a picture of my latest thoughts.

The World Health Organization defines health as not merely the absence of disease but also a ‘state of complete physical, social, [and] mental well-being.’It’s interesting to think of the need for healing across each of these three parts of our experience. What follows are my reflections on the role of art in supporting physical, social, and mental recovery and wellbeing.

A few years ago in the UK there was a surge in popularity of adult colouring books. At the time, people said it was cathartic to engage in an activity that facilitated complete immersion. While this might make art sound like a means of momentary escape from reality, it may be more accurate to define art as a medium through which reality can be experienced in an embodied way. While the completion of colouring pages produces beautiful aesthetic results, it was actually the physical process of creating that people found to be of value. Learning to see the power in the process is a tool widely utilised to help people on their journeys of healing and recovery, and deemed fundamental to some therapeutic approaches. As a result, these approaches harness the potential that art and art-making hold; art can captivate us in a moment, enabling us to direct our focus on the here and now, and the physical act of art-making can help us experience our full selves in the present. Art psychotherapy builds on this notion and states that, beyond being a helpful grounding exercise with self-care at the centre, or an opportunity to be creative and playful, the process of making art can also be a powerful and embodied tool for self-expression. 

The arts as a whole have a distinct ability to connect people and elicit emotional experiences. I’m sure many of us can think of a work of art, a song, a movement, or a film that has affected us in a unique way, and it’s this exchange—between us and the art—that assures me of art’s role in healing and recovery. Sometimes our reactions may be prompted by the beauty of what is before us and our recognition of the skills, time, and talent involved in its creation. At other times, our responses flow from the art’s ability to capture something of our human experience and stir something ineffable within us. In a world that values efficient spoken articulation, when we communicate through showing we create space between the utterable and visible. We allow ourselves to slow down, to feel, to be, and to be connected to others in this experience. These moments encourage us to engage in the present, be grounded, and direct our consciousness towards what is happening internally in response to what we are experiencing externally. When we give space to witness this in ourselves and others, the art serves as a means of communication within the self, between creator and viewer, and as a reminder of our interconnectedness as we experience the art together.

And what about art and mental wellbeing? Within the world of art psychotherapy, we name the client, therapist and image as three equal presences in the therapeutic space. The art object represents an additional means of communication and expression between the client and therapist. In this context, the image is not subjected to the same aesthetic pressures that are present in the art world. Often rich with symbolism and subconscious meaning, the art object provides a window into inner experiences that can be explored safely in the therapeutic environment. In art therapy, grounding and reflection occur simultaneously and focus can be directed on bringing what is inside out. In this way, we can begin to make sense of our need for healing and recovery. 

Some of the most profound forms of self-discovery I have witnessed, in both myself and others, have been through art-making. There is something so powerful about watching an image evolve and come to life. I have had the honour of sharing this process with adults seeking help for drug and alcohol rehabilitation, in prisons, on psychiatric wards, and with children in schools. Let me tell you, the wonder of it all never grows old. Splashes of colour, careful lines, playful sculpting—they all communicate something through the unfettered, free expression of an inner experience. They embody the creator. The art becomes another way of seeing, knowing, and connecting with the artist. It’s alive. The artist shapes the art and can’t help but be shaped themselves in the process. This can be a wonderful place for healing to begin. 

I’m excited about Sanctuary’s exhibition Healing in Colour and the chance it offers to witness the incredible artistry of those involved. If you feel inclined, I invite you to take some time to witness the art, pay attention to your responses, and be open to discovering what this might communicate to you about your present self. I think I’ll end on these wise words from Grayson Perry: “art, like science and religion, helps us make meaning from our lives, and to make meaning is to make us feel better.” 

LUCY HARLAND

Lucy is a London-based trainee Art Psychotherapist whose current clinical placement is an inpatient psychiatric setting. Outside of studying for her master’s, Lucy enjoys spending time discovering new creative outlets. Her current favourites are working with textiles, finding [and more importantly, tasting] delicious new recipes and side-hustlin’ as a ceramicist.

[1] “Constitution of the World Health Organization,” WHO (1948), https://www.who.int/about/who-we-are/constitution.

[2] “Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing,” All-Party Parliamentary Group (2017), https://www.culturehealthandwellbeing.org.uk/appg-inquiry/Publications/Creative_Health_Inquiry_Report_2017_-_Second_Edition.pdf.

Cover photo from Unsplash