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From Poetry to Painting: How Art has Helped to Heal

Painting, making art, writing and acting a role.

These are all pleasurable activities that allow you to be creative and explore the world around you as well as your own identity.

Art therapies are often seen as a recent development in the treatment of mental health issues and other conditions. Indeed, it has become a popular choice alongside more conventional methods and there is a plethora of research that corroborates its benefits.

However, history shows us that art therapy has been around much longer in different guises. We might not have known or recognized that it was happening, but it is clear that art has been helping people to heal for a very long time.

Writing Your Way Well

War Poetry

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When the war first broke out in 1914, British war poetry looked very different to how it did a few years later at the end of the First World War.

At the beginning, it was reminiscent of Shakespeare’s speeches from plays such as Henry V which were patriotic and boosted the soldiers’ morale so they took pride in the heroic battle they were to enter. Rupert Brooke’s “Soldier”, is a well-known example:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.

These promoted the sentiments that it was an honor to die for your country.

And yet, a few years later soldiers such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were writing a very different type of war poetry which spoke of the horrors that they witnessed. Owen painted a vivid picture of a soldier dying from a gas attack in Dulce et Decorum Est:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

Sassoon also depicted the horrors of war and satirized those who glorified it in their writing. He also starkly showed the mental suffering of soldiers in poems such as Suicide in the Trenches. After describing “a simple soldier boy” who “whistled early with the lark”, he tells the reader how:

He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

In fact, Sassoon was himself admitted to hospital and treated for shellshock after he sent a letter that was read out in the British parliament accusing politicians of deliberately prolonging the war.

PTSD and Poetry

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was not known about early in the twentieth century although the term “shell shock” was coined. The British army, however, had little understanding of it and it was related to both physical and psychological symptoms. In 1917, the term was banned and even censored in medical journals.

However, with the benefit of our 21st-century hindsight, it is not hard to see that these soldiers were suffering from PTSD, struggling to cope with the horrors they faced on a daily basis. In this light, their poetry can be seen as a way of trying to process their thoughts and feelings, to try and make some sense of what was happening to them.

British soldiers, however, were not alone. The American, E.E. Cummings, wrote poetry along similar lines to that of Sassoon. He criticised the patriotism written by others and described the horrors that he saw and experienced in his poem “Lis/-ten”. He tells the reader “the first guy drops”, that “everybody feels sick”, and about the “shrapnel” and the “bugs crawling”.

E.E. Cummings was a known pacifist who had volunteered for ambulance service in France. His outwardly anti-war sentiments drew attention and he was later arrested and held on espionage charges. He was later released and then drafted into the army and sent to fight in France.

Perhaps Cummings poetry was a way to help him cope with the situation he found himself in that was at complete odds with his pacifist nature.

In short, we can surmise the art form of poetry was beginning to be used as a tool by soldiers to try and heal themselves.

Writing that Heals

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Whilst research has not yet reached an understanding as to how and why expressive writing can help people to heal, the benefits that can be experienced are well documented. Benefits include improvement of mood, reduction in stress hormones, reduced levels of pain and better sleep.

Types of writing that have been found to be helpful include writing poetry, writing on an emotional topic for a given amount of time and journaling.

Following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the better understanding of PTSD, the popularity of writing as a method of healing has increased significantly. Numerous writing projects have been set up for the benefit of American veterans.

Furthermore, a quick search on the internet shows how many people have found writing has healed them from a plethora of different experiences including the trauma of rape, depression, and grief.

Writing is not the only art form that has helped people heal though.

Art Making for Mental Health Improvements

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“If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.”  Edward Hopper

Artists & Mental Health

Just as was the case with writing, painting and artwork have been used by artists for a long time as a form of therapy to help them deal with mental health issues and past experiences.

For example, Edvard Munch most famous for his painting “The Scream”, was well known to suffer from depression and struggled to deal with his difficult childhood. Many of his paintings were a reflection or exploration of his feelings and experiences.

More recently, Tracey Emin who has become famous for her modern art installations such as “My Bed” at the Saatchi Gallery in London, has also explored past traumas through her art. These are often explored through her monoprints. They have led to her receiving some criticism for sharing too much but it is clear that she sees her art as a form of therapy.

Benefits of Art Therapy

There is now a wealth of scientific evidence from studies that show the benefits of art therapy for a variety of conditions. It has been shown to help alleviate pain in cancer patients, reduce stress levels in those with depression and anxiety as well as improving cognitive function for older adults with dementia.

Making art is thought to help improve health in a few different ways. Whilst taking part in the activities, you are stimulating various parts of your brain. Furthermore, people often use painting and making art to explore personal issues and their identity.

As the artist Edward Hopper explained, art can help you express what you can’t put into words and it could be that art allows people to make sense of the things they feel unable to speak about.

It is also possible that making art, acts as a form of mindfulness that keeps your thoughts in the present moment allowing you to let go of your worries and thereby reducing stress levels.  With the average person having about 60,000 thoughts a day, art can provide a welcome distraction and the focus required can be almost meditative in nature.

No Talent or Experience Required

The biggest barrier probably faced in using painting and art as a method of healing is the misconception that you need to be an expert or a talented artist. This is simply not true. Just because big names such as Tracey Emin have benefitted, it does not mean that you won’t too.

Have you ever watched a young child when they are given paint or materials like boxes to play with? The way their faces light up? The sheer enjoyment they get from just doing without any expectations?

Most people are probably familiar now with mindfulness coloring books and these have been used effectively to gently move veterans suffering from PTSD into art therapy, thereby circumnavigating the fears around artistic ability.

Making art actually requires you to use both sides of your brain. As you learn to get these sides communicating effectively, you improve other skills such as problem-solving and creative thinking. This obviously will have a positive impact on people suffering from conditions such as Alzheimer’s but it can be argued that it is also useful in those suffering from conditions such as depression, opening other thoughts and ways of doing things.

The truth is, no one is really too sure why activities such as painting can help people to heal. Whilst research into the benefits of art therapy is now well established, exactly why it works so well is not so clear.

Getting Dramatic in the Theatre

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Whilst there was only a very crude understanding of mental illness during the sixteenth century, it was a theme commonly found in theatre. Shakespeare is well known for exploring what people of the time thought were the causes of mental illness.

Perhaps the most famous examples are King Lear and Hamlet with the old King’s mind deteriorating with his age and Hamlet and Ophelia struggling to cope with feelings of love and grief.  Shakespeare learned about mental health from a number of experts in the field and this knowledge is evident in the plays.

Even though theatre has been used for centuries to try and explore and understand mental health, its ability to help people heal is newer.

It could be argued that on some level, the opportunities in drama for self-expression and exploring mental health issues, has allowed it to become a form of therapy for many in the acting world.

In recent years, this has become much more deliberate. Fiona Geddes wrote and performed her play Normal/Madness to explore her own mother’s schizophrenia and her understanding of it. Whilst Kimmings and Grayburn wrote a show Fake It ‘Til You Make It about Grayburn’s clinical depression. Kimmings reports that in performing the show, Grayburn found that it improved his emotional wellbeing.

However, just like art, drama therapy and its benefits are open to everyone, even those with zero acting experience. It does not mean you need to be acting on a stage and performing in front of an audience. Instead, it is done in either a group or one-to-one setting.

Many benefits have been found to drama therapy. HopeTree Care in Ohio reports that not only is it useful for those with developmental disabilities like the clients they support, but has also helped those feeling isolated to find their voice and feel connected with the world around them.

Research has found it is beneficial for numerous conditions such as dementia, PTSD, schizophrenia, autism and substance abuse. It is thought that drama therapy is helpful because it often uses metaphors to express ideas. These provide a safe distance from which people can begin to work through their issues.

The Future of Therapy

It is clear that therapy through the arts is here to stay. Research in the future may begin to discover exactly why it is effective but with a mental health crisis quickly developing in the western world and many of our veterans suffering from PTSD, people are always looking for more natural ways to improve their mental health.

At Eleven Eleven, we are sure that as well as art, technology, and outdoor adventures can also prove beneficial which is why we have plans to offer all three and not just art.

Research is important and this will form some of our work so we can properly measure the impact it has on people’s health.

However, when you are suffering, you don’t necessarily want to wait around for research to be done on something that at worst will add to your skills and hobbies.

We’re only scratching the surface of how we can better deal with our mental health issues and we hope you will join us on our exciting journey.

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