Treating Depression: Art, Expression, And Healing

By Corrina Horne

Updated June 14, 2019

Depression is an unfortunately common condition, affecting as many as 300 million people worldwide. When the term "depression" is used, many people think of someone who is blue or down in the dumps, but depression is far more insidious than simple sadness and far more complex both in its treatment and its source. While the word may be used casually to express slight sadness or discomfort, depression is a legitimate, diagnosed condition that requires treatment in order to heal and move forward.

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What Is Depression?

Depression is a mood disorder characterized by apathy, persistent feelings of melancholy, uncontrolled weight loss or gain, lack of energy, feeling hopeless, and low self-esteem. If these symptoms last for two weeks or longer, a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is possible, while these symptoms persisting for two years or longer necessitates a diagnosis of Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD). Depression operates under the umbrella of anxiety disorders, as it creates a significant upset in day-to-day life. Some people live with depression for years, while others need to seek treatment immediately. The severity will play a significant role in treatment, both in terms of necessity and duration.

Gender and age play a role in how depression manifests, and how often it is treated. Men are less likely to recognize the symptoms of depression and may demonstrate depression in the form of anger, irritation, and exhaustion, while women are more likely to seek help, and typically show depression in the form of sadness, guilt, and exhaustion. Teenagers usually show depression via irritability and disinterest, while children who are depressed typically show their depression more in the form of anxiety. Regardless of the way symptoms manifest, however, the diagnosis-and potential treatment methods-are the same.

Common Depression Treatment

There are countless ways to treat depression, but the most common methods of treatment include prescribing anti-depressants and engaging in talk or behavioral therapy. Although these are certainly legitimate ways to go, there are other ways to battle depression, aside from the standard medications and talk therapy methods. Dietary interventions, lifestyle changes, and situational changes can all assist in healing depression and associated conditions.

Although these are the most common forms of treatment, they are not a comprehensive list of options; neurological treatments have been used, including rTMS, which stimulates magnetic impulses in the brain to improve symptoms of depression. In addition to these, however, there is a therapeutic technique designed to fuse depression and creativity called art therapy.

What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy is a therapeutic modality that encourages patients to use art as a form of expression. Talk therapy might prove difficult for someone who does not have a specific source, catalyst, or reason for their depression, or can be difficult for individuals whose depression is intertwined with trauma or abuse. Art therapy can help these men and women work through trauma, depression, and anxiety using artistry. Art therapy may be administered by a dedicated art therapist or could be integrated into a standard therapy session by a psychologist with training or certification in the modality.

Although it may initially be intimidating to create drawings of depression, creating art about depression can be as abstract as putting colors and lines on paper, or as specific as developing a collage depicting the source of your depression. In art therapy, there is no wrong or right way to express yourself. Your creativity is entirely your own and can look however you want it to look. Unlike art class in school, art therapy will not require you to fulfill a certain requirement or place demands that will overwhelm or force certain parameters on you. You might be given a prompt or be asked to focus on something in particular, but your work is for your expression and freedom rather than a target or a grade.

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There are other forms of artistry as well. Some might find it therapeutic to get a depression tattoo, such as a semicolon, or use symbols of depression as a form of expressions, such as writing and creating with imagery often associated with depression, including crows, ravens, and storms. Many art therapy programs focus on depression drawing and other forms of visual art, but tactile artwork (think sculpture and other 3-D mediums), writing, and creating music can all be utilized in a treatment plan. If there is a particular medium you are more interested in or comfortable with, work with your practitioner to create a treatment that will keep you engaged, focused, and dedicated to your own healing journey.

Possessing skill in the realm of art is certainly not a requirement of art therapy. The goal is to develop your ability to listen to and express yourself, not to create a masterpiece or impress your therapist. Giving yourself permission to deviate from the expectation to create something great, and instead of creating something honest and indicative of your experience offers some freedom and relief from the pressure and fear often associated with creation.

Art, Depression, and Healing

Art is an effective method of expressing oneself but can do more than just help you express any feelings of depression you might be encountering. Creativity and creation are both capable of lending tremendous confidence to an individual, which can help lift some of the symptoms of depression-a pivotal part of the depression, for instance, is experiencing low self-esteem, so inspiring confidence is an important part of healing.

Increasing bodies of research are finding that creation and artwork are extremely useful in treating not only depression but also illness as a whole; one study found that patients engaging in art therapy made fewer phone calls and appointments to mental health professionals, as well as requiring fewer medical doctor appointments, and needing fewer medical interventions overall.

Art is a powerful tool for relieving symptoms of depression because it instills confidence, creates room for expression, and fosters creativity, which has been linked to decreases in anxiety, depression, rigid behaviors, and even physical ailments, such as heart disease and cancer. This seems particularly true of therapy fusing art and meditation, as one study found a dramatic difference in patients who engaged in a type of therapy combining artistry and loving-kindness meditation, using art to channel and express the feelings experienced during meditative practice.

Possible Downfalls of Using Art

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Although creating depressed art can be a healthy aspect of healing, there is some danger in associating art and depression, as some may fall prey to the "tortured artist" mindset, and consider depression a necessary aspect of creativity, rather than viewing creativity as a useful outlet for depression. Art therapy is an excellent tool in conjunction with talk therapy to make sure a healthy mindset is maintained within the midst of creativity and artistry.

Art is also not something to self-prescribe instead of engaging other forms of therapy. Some people will need to use talk therapy, medication, and art therapy in order to keep depression at a manageable level, while others may be able to use art therapy with a provider as their sole source of support. Creating artwork on your own without speaking about your condition with a licensed healthcare professional, is not the same as creating artwork about depression as a therapy technique, and should not be mistaken for medical advice.

Art Therapy and Co-Morbidity

While art therapy is great for depression treatment, it can also be used for other conditions co-morbid with depressive syndromes. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, and a host of anxiety disorders can all benefit from art therapy, as can neurodevelopmental disorders, such as ADHD, ADD, and ASD. Integrating this form of therapy into a talk or behavioral therapy can yield wonderful outcomes for people who have multiple disorders.

Creativity and Depression: An Outlook

Indulging creativity as a means of expressing yourself and treating depression can be extremely useful for men and women struggling with depressive symptoms. Whether that involves creating depression drawings, getting depression tattoos, writing, or creating music, art is an important healing tool for many men and women suffering from a variety of mental health conditions. Increasingly, art is demonstrating its prowess as a treatment tool for both anxiety and depression, whether that means creating a drawing of depression, highlighting the color of depression in your own experience and what that means for you, or simply creating without a goal or thought in mind.

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Although self-expression is powerful in its own right, and exorcising your struggles via artwork is powerful on your own, combining a depression symbol means to you with the assistance of integrated art therapy can do more than help you express yourself: it can help you heal yourself. Combined with other healing modalities, art therapy can lessen the symptoms of depression, including hopelessness, low self-esteem, and apathy, while opening a window into a new expression of passion and creativity. Creativity can extend past therapy sessions and be adopted into daily life for someone who suffers from depression, developing a continuum of healing that can last for years after dedicated therapy sessions have concluded.


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