Art therapy is finally being taken seriously as a tool for boosting health

A new World Health Organization report lends  "heft and credibility" but it's only scratching the surface. 

art therapy, art, watercolors

On Monday, the World Health Organization’s Regional Office of Europe dove deep into the art world. In a new report, it channeled its considerable power and resources towards investigating whether art really could be a powerful form of medicine — ultimately suggesting art can be therapeutic, and boosting its credibility in the process.

Art therapy isn’t a new field. The journal Art Therapy for instance, has been around since 1969. But it’s taken fifty years for the idea that art could be used as medicine to catch the attention of the World Health Organization (WHO). This report demonstrates that a leading global health power has finally taken notice.

Over the years, scientists have looked at art as a way to keep people mentally and physically healthy. In this report, WHO reviewed the results of over 900 art therapy-related studies, and noted that all together, art really does influence mental and physical health.

The report states that, overall, these findings “lend credibility to the assertion that the overall evidence base shows a robust impact of the arts on both mental and physical health.”

Girija Kaimal, an associate professor at Drexel University’s creative arts therapies department, tells Inverse a report like this backs the idea that art can be a powerful therapeutic tool. But Kaimal also argues the report has some flaws.

“I think that the fact that this is funded by the World Health Organization, even if it is just the regional office for Europe, lends a lot of heft and credibility,” she says. “Beyond that, I’m not sure it offers anything for the field of art therapy.”

art, art therapy
The World Health Organization has turned its attention to art therapy. 

Not all art is art therapy

The report takes a broad view of how art influences health. “Art” by its definition includes actually doing some kind of art like painting or making music. The definition also includes consuming art, through actions like going to a museum or a play.

For example, they note that that cultural engagement (going out to concerts, museums, or exhibitions) can help deepen cognitive reserve, a measure of the brain’s resilience to age-related decline. But they also highlight papers pointing music’s calming effect on children during dental visits, or how choir singing improved the mood in a small sample of patients who suffered stroke-related brain damage.

One issue with such a broad definition, says Kaimal, is that it’s impossible to tell how the people who received art “treatments” actually got them. It’s unclear whether they received art therapy, which is administered by licensed professionals, or whether they just went to a museum of their own accord, for instance.

art, cognitive decline
Cultural engagement, like going to art galleries, was linked to greater cognitive reserve, a measure of resilience against age-related cognitive decline. 

Kaimal considers this discrepancy a “major drawback.”

She explains that “when you don’t specify, you can cause harm because if people go into settings without adequate training and understanding of the population they’re working with, art might not always be the most helpful.” 

That’s not to say that experiencing art in a non-therapeutic context isn’t restorative or beneficial, Kaimal notes. But in terms of being able to treat clinical conditions, specificity, she says, is important.

Elin Bjorling, co-founder of the University of Washington’s Momentary Experience Lab, echoes the idea that you need to be very specific about how specific kinds of art impact people in certain contexts.

“It would be interesting to know when and where which types of art are most successful,” Bjorling tells Inverse. “Potentially, there are kinds of art that would be inappropriate or not useful for a certain population or in a certain context.”

“We should think about using it more.”

Although it may not be specific enough, the report does provide an invitation to explore just how powerful art can be. For her part, Bjorling notes art has significant untapped power, especially for teenagers, the population she works with most closely.

Her own work, a pilot study published in the journal Art Therapy, found that art programs reduced headaches in a small sample of eight teenage girls. There, an average of seven headaches over two weeks was reduced to four, and they also reported feeling less momentary stress, though overall stress levels didn’t change significantly.

Overall, Bjorling says she wasn’t surprised that art helped the teens in her study deal with stress, but she notes that she was surprised at just how strongly the teens in her study took to art as a form of therapy.

“They just picked it up and ran with it,” Bjorling says. “We have teens draw out scenarios in their lives using storyboard-type activities and they seem to really really enjoy it.”

Taken together, that’s one way that she believes art could be a powerful intervention — not just because of studies that speak to it’s efficacy, but also because it’s a restorative, healthy activity that people actually like to do. That’s the crucial point, she says, especially when you’re working with teenagers.

“It speaks to the current culture, where we often don’t use art, we don’t think of using art, and it might be a simple and usable tool for a lot of people,” Bjorling explains. “We should think about using it more.”

Ultimately, Kaimal notes that the report could go a long way toward achieving that goal, but in terms of improving the field of art therapy, it leaves something to be desired. However, it does provide an introduction to art as a multifaceted resource that help thousands of people:

“There’s a range of ways in which the arts can help. They can be emotional, psychological, physical, spiritual. That’s sort of the strength of the arts: they can be what you need them to be for your health needs.”

And with the World Health Organization’s interest piqued, there may be more research to come.

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