Exploring Creative Approaches to Improve Health and Wellness

It is widely recognized that a strong connection between physical health and mental health exists. But where do we go from here? What creative approaches can health care providers explore for improving general health and mental wellness to enhance recovery?

With a growing shift toward recovery-oriented person-centered care, and a lack of integrated services to help people recover from physical and mental health needs, it is reasonable to consider the role of the creative arts in facilitating healing for people with co-occurring physical and mental health conditions. While formal art therapy programs incorporate models of counseling and psychotherapy, engaging in the creative arts with less clinical emphasis offers promise as a more self-directed intervention to healing.

Often underutilized as an approach to fostering health and wellness, the freedom and self-determination associated with expressing oneself through the arts has been found to engender feelings of empowerment and autonomy, improve sense of well-being and quality of life, and increase motivation toward adopting healthy behaviors (Kilroy et al., 2007). Research conducted by the Arts for Health team of Manchester Metropolitan University in England by Kilroy and colleagues found that engaging individuals in creative expression through culture and the arts had a profound effect on well-being by increasing an individual’s capacity to make healthy changes in lifestyle. The Manchester study measured general health, anxiety and depression, well-being, and work and life attitudes across six different art projects involving 104 participants. Outcomes in all domains of health, including somatic symptoms, improved significantly following engagement with creative arts. Providing outlets for creative self-expression enabled individuals to share their thoughts, feelings and ideas in non-conventional ways, to discover their unique abilities, talents, passions and dreams, and to move beyond the exclusive role of patient. This study demonstrated that engaging the whole of the person in the creative arts yielded opportunities for change, personal growth and a greater sense of meaning in life.

Responsive to these themes, the Coalition of Behavioral Health Agencies’ Center for Rehabilitation and Recovery, New York City’s primary education and training entity for mental health providers, is introducing a training module on leadership development to include information on the use of narrative as an essential tool for communication directed toward change. The art of forming narratives or storytelling will be used as one approach to help providers improve interpersonal skills, identify common values, challenge perspectives and stimulate meaningful changes that promote hope, empowerment and a greater sense of purpose among both givers and receivers of care.

Professionally, I have used the creative arts, though storytelling, as an intervention when working with individuals with co-occurring disorders of mental health disabilities and HIV. In collaboration with The Moth Outreach Program, an organization which conducts storytelling workshops with underserved groups in New York City, participants who actively engaged in personal storytelling were able to “find” their voice, develop empathy, identify with one another’s pain, deepen relationships and build social supports among group members. Upon completion of the workshop, members were invited to perform their stories at cultural venues in the city which contributed towards their integration as active members in the community.

I also understand the first-hand benefits of using creative self-expression to promote healing. During a particularly difficult period while recovering from a health condition, writing about my physical pain and emotional distress served as a catalyst for transformation. The creative process functioned as a distraction from physical symptoms, provided an outlet for deep, reflective thinking, allowed me to redirect intense emotions toward healing, and helped to shift my perspective from loss of meaning to purpose and value in life.

Engaging in the creative process can help people develop insights, organize their thinking, and find relief from events which cause distress or pain, all of which have critical implications for physical health and mental wellness. Because individuals have different interests, strengths, desires and dreams, a variety of creative options are needed. Creative and artistic activities ranging from singing and dancing, painting and drawing, to storytelling and drama, may be of interest. These activities can inspire self-directed action toward healthy living and recovery.

For resources about arts and healing programs, please go to: www.nea.gov/resources/accessibility/rlists/artsnhealthresources.html or www.manhattanarts.com/resources.

To learn more about the Center’s trainings please visit our website: www.coalitionny.org/the_center/ for future updates.

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