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A different kind of therapy

Creating good mental health habits can feel like trying to start a new exercise regime — and just as difficult to fit into our busy lives — but often the tools we need are already within reach. MYKE BARTLETT writes.

It’s no secret that people with diabetes often live with poor mental health — statistics suggests living with diabetes means you are two to three times more likely to have depression. Therapy can be very effective but isn’t always easily accessible or affordable. A new approach to therapy might help. A team of scientists at University of Western Australia are digging into the power of art — in whatever form we enjoy it — to transform our mental health.

Dr Christina Davies, who leads the team, says that engaging with art in a healthy or therapeutic way isn’t just fun, but something we’re all probably doing already.

“Art therapy is something everyone can do, as part of their everyday life,” Christina says. 

“It’s things like singing and dancing or drawing and painting. But it’s also reading books, it’s listening to music, it’s going to concerts and movies. It’s all those things that bring us joy and happiness, and connection to other people.”

In a time-poor world, there can be a sense that we should always be doing something productive, whether that’s earning morning, undertaking study or housekeeping. 

“It’s kind of funny, but for some reason, we feel often guilty about spending time engaging with art, or we see it as a luxury.”

Christina says it’s important to realise that consuming or creating art — however enjoyable it may be — can be very productive when it comes to our shaping our health. All the same, art therapy remains an area of study that hasn’t yet had much attention.

“Art therapy has been around for a really long time, but compared to sports and health, we have a newer and smaller evidence base. With mental health issues increasing, it’s important to empower people to know that there is this evidence based option for you.”

Empowering people — and expanding that evidence — has been the focus of Christina’s academic career.

“There’s really strong evidence of the link between art and mental wellbeing, especially mood. For my PhD, I interviewed a range of people — people who paint, people who do pottery, people who listen to music or play a musical instrument — and asked them why they do it. Within three sentences, I could guarantee that they would say the word ‘happiness’.”

“You don’t have to be good at art for the arts to be good for you.”

This year, Christina put together the 5-Day Arts Challenge — a collection of prompts and resources to help people rethink how they engage with the arts and try a few new activities. All of these activities are designed to be as affordable as they are achievable. Christina is keen to dispel any ideas that the arts aren’t for everyone.

“One of the most amazing places to actually buy art supplies is actually your local shops. It doesn’t have to be fancy stuff. It’s worth checking your local paper as councils quite often will have arts events on free. There’s so much that people can do that isn’t costly but still brings joy and happiness and connection to other people.”

Beginning art therapy doesn’t mean making sweeping changes in our lives, but rather thinking differently about things we are already doing. Even better, there’s no right or wrong way to do it.

“You don’t have to be good at art for the arts to be good for you. The way art therapy promotes good mental health is basically encouraging people to think about the arts that they love. So this isn’t about everyone doing, say, music. If you love reading books, read books, if you like painting paint, paint, if you want to go to an art class, do that.”

“‘I should make time to go to that book club because actually, it’s good for my mental health!'”

Likewise, there shouldn’t be any stress fitting art therapy into a busy day.

“If the only time you have in your day is on your way to work, listening to music, then do it that way. Listen to your favourite songs. Art therapy is all about making time for the arts as it suits your lifestyle, but having the knowledge that, actually, arts engagement affects your mental wellbeing.”

Realising the benefits makes it easier to find more time to enjoy art — and stop feeling guilty about it!

“When you say this to people, you can see the lights go on. It’s like, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t feel guilty about those movie tickets or concert tickets that I just bought’ or ‘I should make time to go to that book club because actually, it’s good for my mental health, for my connection to other people.’”

Diabetes WA note: Art therapy should not be considered an alternative to clinical treatments. Talk to your health professionals before making any changes to your therapy routines.


5-Day Arts Challenge

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