Australia has one of the highest rates of mental ill health in the world.
- Some are calling for time engaged with the arts to be prescribable by Australian doctors
- There is a mountain of research into the effect of the arts on the human body and brain
- Despite initial reservations, Bronwyn now finds art to be freeing
We book in time with our GP for mental health concerns more often than any other ailment.
One in four of us will experience an anxiety disorder during our lifetime, and one in 10 will experience depression.
The statistics paint a pretty bleak picture, but what if actually painting the picture is part of the solution?
Bronwyn has always been skeptical about art therapy. She says it conjures images of privilege and pretension.
“It’s a little bit wanky,” she says, laughing.
“I kind of associate it with hipsters living in the inner city or wealthy white mums who are, like, stressed about their divorce settlement.”
Bronwyn has had anxiety for most of her life, and developed PTSD after the sudden death of her brother on flight MH17 in 2014.
She says the trauma she experienced means her anxiety is life-long.
Even though she has a great psychologist, she was on the lookout for additional strategies to help manage it.
“Anxiety for me is something that’s permanent and it’s something that ebbs and flows,” she said.
“Also because I had some surface-level judgements about it, I wanted to put my money where my mouth is.”
So, she did what she never thought she’d do.
She signed on for art as therapy.
‘It was instantly calming’
Bronwyn was one of seven people from very different walks of life who signed on for an experimental program on ABC TV.
It’s called Space 22, and follows the seven Australians through different creative outlets such as photography, painting and singing to judge what benefits these activities can provide.
If successful, the program would add to the growing calls for time engaged in the arts to be part of treatments doctors and other healthcare providers in Australia could prescribe.
When Bronwyn walked into the art space with her fellow test subjects, her initial feelings were that of severe discomfort.
“I was really nervous and overwhelmed,” she said.
“And I was very aware of the fact that I was with a bunch of people that I don’t know.”
After some initial reservations, the group began to bond over their shared experiences of mental ill health as they were guided through a range of creative outlets.
Bronwyn found painting and drawing made the biggest impact on her.
“I realised a big part of it is that the focus is on the process of creating rather than the final product,” she said.
Very quickly, Bronwyn found herself turning to drawing to calm her nerves for the day ahead.
“When we’d arrive in the morning, I’d just go straight in and get a piece of paper and pencils or chalk or whatever was there and start doodling until we started,” she said.
“It was instantly calming for me because it took my focus away from the space and the cameras and the whole thing and just onto what I was doing.”
She says the creative outlet is another tool in her arsenal for managing anxiety.
“And by that I mean literally sit down and do a drawing or painting.”
Katherine Boydell, a professor of mental health at the Black Dog Institute, oversaw the experiment and says creative activities have a unique effect on the brain and the body.
“There are many studies, a burgeoning literature really, on the relationship between art and mental health and wellbeing,” Dr Boydell says.
“It’s everything from biophysiological studies, like how do your cortisol levels change in response to painting or singing? What about blood pressure, heartbeat?
She says being engaged in the creative process helps us move past some of the intrusive thoughts and feelings mental ill health can stimulate.
“As you’re engaged in the act of creating, it gives the brain an opportunity to shut out the busyness and the unwanted thoughts from anxiety — it’s all pushed aside to focus on that outlet,” she says.
But there was another benefit Dr Boydell observed occurring throughout the experiment: a sense of community.
“Watching the cast working together, at least half of the activities involved group work. And so, what you observe happening are these very human connections, these sharing experiences even though [the individuals] are quite different. And so that creates a sense of ‘I am not alone’.”
Could arts on prescription work in Australia?
There are growing calls for arts to be prescribed as part of a mental health treatment plan by the Australian healthcare system.
Countries such as the United Kingdom and Canada already have similar programs in place, where patients can be referred on to a therapeutic arts service by their doctor.
While Australians may struggle to pick up an arts prescription note from their GP right now, there are plenty of “wonderful pockets” across the country holding social groups and building an evidence base, says Dr Boydell.
“There is a lot going on. They are being evaluated and there is research being done on them. But there is no integrated sense of bringing all of these people working in these different pockets together,” she said.
Bronwyn can’t see why art as a social prescription wouldn’t be embraced by the healthcare system.
“We understand the impact of exercise and movement on wellbeing, we understand the impact of medication and we understand the impact of traditional talking therapy, so why would we not also try and incorporate in creative therapy?”
Watch Bronwyn’s story on ABC TV’s Space 22 at 8:00pm on Tuesday, or on ABC iview.
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