mental health and art

The Mental Health Benefits of Art

Written by Carmen Darley

Would it surprise you to learn that the pandemic has seriously elevated the number and scale of mental health challenges worldwide? Probably not. Even if you haven’t struggled with your own mental health over the past year, statistics from the Centre for Disease Control suggest it’s likely that you know someone who has. You may also have noticed that everyday feelings of boredom, anxiety, or just general gloominess have started to become regular (and unwanted) visitors. As an artist, I turn to my work to help me cope with some of these feelings and manage my own mental health struggles. But what if you’re not an artist? In my opinion, there’s a simple answer: whatever you tell yourself, you already are an artist. Here’s why it might be time to rethink your perspective.

The Connection Between Art and Mental Health

While the trope of the tortured artist may be beloved by popular media, the truth is that study after study has found strong connections between art and improved mental health. Making art is associated with lowered levels of cortisol, a biological marker of stress. It also appears to activate the medial prefrontal cortex, the brain’s “reward centre,” which helps explain the positive feelings many people experience when creating art. Other scientific evidence suggests that making art helps people achieve mindfulness and cope with stress elsewhere in their lives. All this research can help explain how art benefits our mental well-being, but my own experiences as an artist have already provided me with plenty of proof. I’ve struggled with anxiety, depression, low confidence, self-doubt, alcoholism, postpartum depression, and burnout throughout my life.

Art is one of the things that grounds me; ​​there’s an unparalleled satisfaction in completing something unique with your own hands and in bringing your own creative vision to life. Art may not cure mental health challenges, but art is a crucial pillar of support for myself and many others.

Does Art Feel Out of Reach?

“Oh, I’m not much of an artist” — is that an excuse you’ve made yourself, or one you’ve heard voiced by your friends and family? If so, you’re not alone. One recent UK study found that over half of the adults surveyed didn’t consider themselves artistic, which lines up with an older Adobe study noting that 75% of people don’t feel they’re living up to their creative potential.

Maybe this is because so many people define artistry in terms of originality and skill. It’s easy to get discouraged when you feel like you can’t make “good” art, and it’s also daunting to start a new hobby that has its own tools and techniques. But here’s the thing: many of those studies I mentioned earlier were conducted on participants completing basic, simple artistic tasks such as colouring or painting. The simple act of creating can bring you joy and improve your mental wellbeing, whether you’re an up-and-coming Van Gogh or someone picking up a paintbrush for the very first time.

A One-Step Guide to Becoming an Artist

Here’s my secret one-step guide to becoming an artist: try creating art. If that still seems daunting, don’t worry. It’s completely okay to feel like you still need a little more structure. Exercising your creative muscles doesn’t have to mean sitting down in front of a blank piece of paper and following some vague intention to express yourself. Remember, the simple acts of working with your hands and playing with colours, shapes, and ideas can make you an artist. Here are some places to start:

  • Try a creative project box: this includes tools and instructions for discovering a new skill, like resin-work.
  • Look up some beginner tutorial videos and follow step-by-step videos. Not only will this give you a chance to create—you might also pick up some foundational skills!
  • Sign up for a local or online workshop (or organize one yourself!). I’ve been running in-person workshops for several years, and online workshops since the start of the pandemic; seeing the joy in people’s faces when we work together is one of the most rewarding parts of my business; I’d love to help you organize a personalized ‘night-in art event’ for you and your group!
  • Experiment with low-stakes personal projects like doodling or journaling. You’ll spend some time flexing those artistic muscles without the pressure of creating a masterpiece.
  • Look for other ways to feel creative, like cooking, gardening, or completing DIY home projects. You may be surprised to discover the artistry in your everyday life!

Go Ahead, Schedule an Art Break!

Over the past year and a half, many of us have settled into routines that revolve around our phones and computers. Spending all day working on your screen, then spending the evening watching TV, scrolling social media, or even video-calling friends and family all adds up to a ton of screen time. That gets exhausting physically and mentally. Intentionally making space for art, creativity, and play gives you a chance to reconnect with your body and reinvigorate your mind. Pivoting your self-image to prioritize your creative instincts will encourage you to seek out opportunities for art, all while building the confidence to begin exploring new hobbies.

So start calling yourself an artist—and don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty!

Carmen Darley of Carli D Collective

Carmen Darley operates Carli D Collective, an outlet for her own artistic creations and space for her to inspire acts of everyday artistry through her creative boxes. A self-taught artist, Carmen opened her business in 2016 as a hobby to support her own mental wellness and to help her cope with her journey to become sober after struggling with alcoholism for twelve years. Her own personal struggles with mental health challenges have made mental wellness initiatives central to her business. In addition to encouraging a do-it-yourself approach to art for her customers, her long-term goal is to be able to provide free art workshops to others facing mental health struggles. Carmen is a proud partner of the Ontario Shores Foundation. Her work has been featured in a wide variety of luxury magazines, including WedLuxe, Wedding Chicks, Wedding Bells, The Bridal Affair, Breakfast Television Toronto, and others.