Creative Art & Well-being

Here are some reasons that creative art is thought to benefit mental health:

  • Relaxation, enjoyment and inner calm 16, 17
  • Emotional expression, self-expression (important healing influence) 1,2,3
  • Emotional literacy
  • Communication tool and assisting with self-exploration 4
  • Social opportunities
  • Opportunities for recognition and achievement:
    • Making objects of artistic value and worth
    • Demonstrating recognisable skill
    • Demonstrating recognisable knowledge
    • Displaying work
    • Selling work/skills
  • Building an enhanced sense of identity
  • Building an enhanced sense of social worth
  • Improving transferable skills
  • Making meaning from life experiences 18
  • Research also connects creative individual activity to raised self-esteem 5
  • Adaptability, coping strategies enhanced6 which contributes to maintenance of mental well-being 7
  • Art is a tool for change – change to the self, change to society 8
  • Developing thinking patterns – design thinking, metaphorical thinking, associative thinking – all combat rigid thinking patterns 9
  • Engages right hand brain to produce sense of tranquility – sense of engagement, timelessness, associative thinking, metaphors, intuition, emotion, synthesis, holistic perception 10
  • Research shows that design processes engage whole brain including left hand side of brain – analytic, symbolic, abstract – making for strong cross-domain connections – strongly creative thinking patterns can contribute to emotional stability as well as mental agility. 11

Here is some evidence to show that creative activity benefits mental health:

  • At Start, Colgan (1991) demonstrated that there were fewer readmissions to psychiatric hospital when discharged patients were involved in arts projects in the community with artists 12
  • Huxley P.J. (1997) Arts on Prescription Stockport NHS Trust reviewed the effectiveness of arts on prescription in Stockport for people with mild to moderate depression and anxiety, and found that the social support and structure were beneficial. Huxley showed, by use of the General Health Questionnaire, that after arts interventions there was a reduction in the numbers of participants with recognisable mental health problems 13
  • Everitt and Hamilton (2003) showed that, in the project they looked at, people taking part in art and health projects used medical services less. They noted that some GP surgeries working in alliance with artists could show that, amongst participants in arts and health projects, there was a reduction in visits from women with depression and a reduction in medication 14
  • Creek (2000) ran creative groups for women in deprived areas of Sunderland and wrote how the process of creativity changed the group members’ perception of their own ability. ‘This flexibility, which is characteristic of creative thinking, enhances the individual’s ability to cope adaptively with the inevitable stresses of life.’ 15
  • At Start some students report feeling noticeably calmer and more contented – ‘on a high’ – for some hours or even days after their art session (from video interviews with Start students 2005). This may be due to the fact that expressive artistic activity releases neurochemicals, including endorphins, into the brain. These neurochemicals assist deep concentration, slow down pulse and breathing, reduce blood pressure and boost the immune system through what is termed ‘The Relaxation Response’ in some well-known research from the Behavioural Medicine Clinic, Harvard University (Benson and Klipper 2000) 16
  • Parr6, in her study on art and mental wellbeing, describes how participants in arts activities refer frequently to the energising and restorative aspects of art, terming it a ‘therapeutic interiority… a psychological locatedness, enabling a temporarily all-consuming occupational space that distract[s] from negative and disruptive thoughts and emotions.’ 17
  • Positive risk-taking is another facet of participating in arts activities noted by Matarasso as ‘teaching us how to live with risk and to turn it to our advantage.’ 18
  • Matarasso points out that art has a unique ability to help us to find meaning in the world and, in turn, he suggests that art interprets the world back to us. It is this capacity for art to embody meaning and value that makes it so powerful in rebuilding lives. ‘Art as activity, process and object, is central to how people experience, understand and then shape the world’ 18
  • We experience “flow” when we are engaged in activities that are challenging but for which we have the skills to meet the challenge 19
    Research has shown that arts projects create “flow” like experiences through the artwork, being able to focus in-depth on an activity creates optimal experiences. The arts provide interpersonal contact, control, skill use, externally generated goals, variety and physical security which thereby increases self esteem, self value and perceived worth to the community 20
  • Creative activity has been shown to increase self esteem, provide a sense of purpose, give structure to an otherwise shapeless day, help people engage in social relationships and friendships. Enhance social skills and community integration and improve an individual’s quality of life 21
  • The arts can be particularly effective at engaging hard to reach communities and individuals and exploring complex social issues 22


  1. Buzan, T. (2001) The Power of Creative Intelligence. London: Thorsons
  2. Cameron J. (1994) The artist’s way. London: Souvenir Press
  3. White M.(2003) Addressing the Evidence base from participation in arts and cultural activities. Durham: CAHHM
  4. Rigler – Withymoor Surgery – A Healthy Hive Withymoor 1997
  5. Schwartz and Williams – Metaphors we Teach By – The Mentor Teacher and the Hero StudentJournal of Aesthetic Education. 29 103-110. 1995
  6. Everitt A. and Hamilton R. Art, health and Well-being – An Evaluation of Five Community Arts in Health Projects CAHHM Durham, 2003)
  7. Illich I. Limits to Medicine. Boyars. London. 1976
  8. White M. op cit
  9. De Bono, E. 1992 Teach your child to think. Penguin Psychology
  10. Edwards B. 1993 Drawing on the Right Hand Side of the Brain Souvenir Press
  11. Gabora L. 2002 Cognitive mechanisms Underlying the Creative process. In: Hewitt T, Kavanagh T (eds) Proceedings of the 4th international conference on creativity and cognition, 13-16 Oct, Loughborough University
  12. Colgan, S., Bridges K., Brown L., et al A Tentative Start to Community Care Psychiatric Bulletin 15 1991
  13. Huxley P.J. (1997) Arts on Prescription Stockport NHS Trust
  14. Everitt A. and Hamilton R. Art, Health and Well-being – An Evaluation of Five Community Arts in Health Projects CAHHM Durham, 2003
  15. Creek J. 2001 Measuring the outcomes of a creative activity group. Mental Health OT. 6(2), 18-20
  16. Benson, H. and Klipper, M. Z. (2000) The Relaxation Response. HarperCollins, U.S.A.
  17. Parr H. (2005) The arts and mental health: creativity and inclusion. Dundee: University of Dundee/Economic and Social Research Council.
  18. Matarasso, F. (1997) Use or Ornament? the social impact of participation in the arts. Comedia Conference
  19. Csikszentmihalyi, M (1975) Beyond Boredom and Anxiety San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  20. Story, R ( 1998)The Wise and The Foolish, The Paradoxical World of Mental Health
  21. Oliver, J. P. J., Huxley, P. J., Bridges, K., et al (1996) Quality of Life and Mental Health Services. London : Routledge
  22. J. Cowling (ed), For Arts Sake? Society and the Arts in the 21st Century, Institute for Public Policy Research.


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