To understand how art is utilized in mental health you’ll have to think of art as a constitutive subject, an essential element in interpersonal communications. Art doesn’t exist for the sake of its own existence, but for the sake of interpersonal communication. In art, both artist and observer are participants. Although it is the artist that originally imbues their work with meaning, it is the observer who discovers its meaning. It’s the observer who must break the artist’s work down into its disparate parts, decipher its hidden code and piece that code together into a coherent sentence or paragraph which the arts reason for existing is stated. Consciously and unconsciously, it’s through art that those dealing with mental illness create insight into their existence.
It is through their art, that qualified art therapists are able to determine what underlying issues are at the root of an individual’s mental illness. Thus; their art acts as an indicator/confirmation of which mental illness they may be suffering from due to certain mental illnesses’ ability to affect an individual’s perception and expression. Thus, the art of a mentally ill individual is capable of being utilized as a road map which assist art therapists in determining which physiological and psycho-emotive issues need to be dealt with in order to return an individual to wellness.
Most individuals dealing with mental illness experience some form of impairment in their ability to intentionally communicate their instinctual desires through repressed thinking. This is because individuals suffering from mental illness may lack the ego integrity ( strength of mind and connection with reality) necessary to censor and harness the energy of their instinctual desires (emotions and sensations) while transforming them into coherent thought/spoken concepts or ideas. However, artistic expression allows individuals possessing mental illnesses to express their instinctual desires in a constructive manner without being forced to censor their thoughts, feelings, or instincts in a non-restrictive pattern of expression.
This is important because censoring can cause an individual to shut down and become incapable of communicating with others due to their frustration with being unable to convey their thoughts as quickly as they emerge.
Thus; for those that are mentally ill, art or the act of art becomes a non-threatening means of communications for the mentally ill and their artistic observer/therapist. This allows a mentally ill individual to communicate freely without reservation and feel comfortable with expressing their mental landscape thoughts, feelings and dreams to the art therapist who interprets the meaning of these phenomena into a meaningful representation of their clients’ inner-world; this further assist the art therapist in determining underlying issues responsible for their clients’ conditions and what issues may be agitating or preventing them from returning to health.
Thus, it’s after the creation of art as a finished product that an observer/art therapist becomes a participant in the client’s artistic process through attempting to discover both its latent and manifest meaning. It’s through joint participation of artist/client and observer/therapist that both are brought together in developing its meaning. It’s through this process that the artist/client is given value or validation by the participating observer/therapist and that both process and observer are internalized by the artist; the client takes the therapist and their reaction to their art into themselves and is either positively or negatively affected by it. Thus; the therapist’s reaction to their art will either assist in returning the client to health or delay it. In short, a therapist reaction to their client’s art and their ability to praise and/or critique appropriately will assist their client in developing insight, self-esteem and connection to reality.
Without this interpersonal process between client and therapist, art in and of itself possesses no innate value associated with a client’s healing unless it is to release the instinctual energy pent-up within the psyche of those who are mentally ill through various creative outlets that de-energize the unsatisfied instinctual impulses responsible for the agitation of a client’s concomitant emotional states. So to the artist/client without the involvement of process and observer/therapist, art and its creation lacks value and is discarded by the client. Without process and observer it becomes another expression of unmet instinctual desires that the artist desires to alleviate, but unable to do so becomes even more frustrated. In short, without a voice and a listener those suffering from mental illness become shut off from others and reality while experiencing frustration, and anxiety. It is through art, its process of creation and the presence of an interested observer that this is prevented and remedied.
Because art and the creation of art gains value through collective participation by both artist and observer; it becomes a constitutive subject which is internalized by both artist and observer, and then possesses the power to heal through the internalization of process and observer. It’s this process that is invaluable to individuals dealing with mental illness, and brings about healing much in the same way as rationalized therapy, therapy in which disciplined rationale thought is applied, otherwise known as talk therapy where the observer/therapist and client develop insight and alleviate the client’s anxieties through developing cognitive behavioral procedures that deal with the client’s internalized conflicts or unanswered instinctual desires. The difference is that through art and the process of art there is an ability to create a public record of the psycho- emotive state in which both therapist and client engaged in during their time together. Thus; structured art therapy has the potential to assist the mentally ill in returning wellness as it assists them in understanding their underlying problems.