Art therapy has a “clear effect” on severe depression, helping some people to get back to work after time off, new research suggests.
During the research, conducted by Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, 43 patients with “severe” or “moderately severe” depression underwent an art therapy course.
Meanwhile a control group of 36 people with depression and symptoms of the same level did not take part in art therapy.
Activities within the therapy sessions included instructions such as: “create a picture of how you are feeling on this particular day.”
After 10 art therapy sessions, the patients who suffered from severe or moderately severe depression had shown more improvement than the patients in the control group, the researchers concluded.
According to the researchers the majority of the participants were so affected by their depression that they were unable to work at the start of the study.
The individual art therapy took place in psychiatry or primary care and was conducted by a specially trained therapist.
Each session began with a short briefing and a relaxation exercise. After that participants created artwork with crayons and water colours.
“The materials were simple, allowing people to doodle and feel free to express themselves the way they wanted to, and then they would talk about the picture and its significance,” Christina Blomdahl, PhD at the institute of health and care sciences and licensed occupational therapist and art therapist, explained.
After 10 hour-long treatment sessions the patients had improved on an average of almost five steps on a rating scale used for depression.
Blomdah said this represents a large leap that entails a “considerable” change to everyday life, and sometimes it may also mean that a patient is able to return to work.
Anxiety, sleep, ability to take initiative and emotional involvement are some of the factors that are assessed. In the control group that had not undergone art therapy there was no definite change.
“The conclusion is that it was the art therapy that facilitated their improvement,” Blomdah said.
“Painting pictures based on themes and discussing the pictures with the therapist promotes self-reflection and brain stimulation that takes place outside of the conscious mind.”
Although Blomdahl’s study was based on adults, Mary-Rose Brady, director of operations at the British Association of Art Therapists, previously told HuffPost UK art therapy can be particulalry useful for children struggling with mental ill health.
“We know that children who can’t understand or name their feelings are more likely to ‘act them out’, so art therapy can provide relief to a child whose only previous option was to dissolve into tears or have an angry outburst in response to overwhelming feelings,” she said.
“Art materials enable children to externalise troubling or confusing emotions, giving them form and enabling them to make links between thoughts, feelings and behaviours, perhaps for the first time.”
Debbie Thwaites, founder of art therapy charity Shine Again, explained how this works.
“One young boy I saw just wanted to paint poo,” she said.
“He wasn’t able to say ‘this person is making me feel like poo’, but he was able to get all the brown and black colours out, make a big mess and say ‘that’s what I feel like’.”
Based on the recent findings, Blomdahl hopes that art therapy will be used more extensively in healthcare.
“Based on evidence requirements it has been more or less scrapped by psychiatry, but this is one of the largest studies that has been conducted in this area,” she said.
“It is a step that may lead to more people being trained in it and the method being used again.”