Role of art therapy in treating schizophrenia

This therapy provides for healthy expression of emotions and thoughts through art

What is art therapy?

Art therapy involves using art as a medium of expression, under the guidance of a therapist. Using paint, clay or various other types of art, a person with mental illness can express their inner thoughts without using words. Art therapy is usually combined with other forms of alternative therapy such as music, dance and movement, to help persons with mental illness. The goal of art therapy is not to learn to paint or hone artistic skills, but to give voice to your thoughts and understand your feelings and emotions better.

Note: While art therapy may involve many other forms such as music, dance, drama etc, this article is about the visual art medium only.

Art therapy for schizophrenia

Persons with schizophrenia experience several symptoms such as hallucinations and distorted or false perceptions, which are often not understood by their friends or family. In such cases, art therapy helps them:

a) Interpret their emotions and feelings, and express them without necessarily using words. This helps friends and family of the person understand them better.

b) Fight the side-effects of medication: Art therapy helps persons with schizophrenia deal with the side effects of psychiatric medications such as drowsiness, lethargy as activity such as drawing or making a collage helps to keep their minds active with work.

"For persons with schizophrenia, art therapy is a healthy form of distraction from various symptoms, such as disturbing thoughts, hearing voices, etc. The one to two-hour therapy sessions help the person to focus on the activity assigned to them and ignore the voices in their head or stop talking to themselves, apart from providing a forum for creative expression", says a rehabilitation professional from Asha, a halfway home for persons with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, working under the aegis of Richmond Fellowship Society, Bangalore.

What does an art therapy session involve?

Visual art therapy sessions can either take place in groups or in one-on-one interactions with the therapist. Group sessions not only help the person understand and express themselves but also helps them learn social skills. Participants learn to make appropriate conversations with each other, relearn simple communication, understand the group dynamics and learn to work with each other, thereby enhancing their team-building capabilities.

“When we divide them into teams for the session, we also introduce an element of competition. We give them an activity and each person is asked to compete against the others. When healthy competition is introduced, the motivation to perform the task well is high, which in turn helps with their self-esteem and social team building,” says the rehabiltation professional. 

An individual art therapy session involves the therapist and the person. At first, the person is given the freedom to choose their visual medium of expression, such as paint or clay, and is provided with materials to create the form. The goal here is more to spark a discussion between the therapist and the person about their state of mental health, rather than creating good art. This helps the therapist understand the person better. The person then creates the art form, after which the therapist and the person discuss and reflect upon the therapeutic relief through the art form. 

For persons with serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia, creating the art form could be something that they would like to share and express or something that they want to describe – an incident or an experience that they have not been comfortable sharing earlier.

Art as a complementary form of therapy

Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe mental illness which affects day to day functioning. Art therapy is useful in addressing negative symptoms such as lack of motivation, social withdrawal, poor communication and non-verbal skills. It can be a complementary therapy, which along with medication, will help in the treatment of the person and teach them to cope with the illness. Art therapy can be especially helpful for persons with mental illness and their caregivers to just let go of their anger, frustration and emotional upheavals in a healthy manner and in an environment that is supportive and stigma-free.

Where to look for art therapy?

Art therapy sessions are usually conducted in hospitals and community-based rehabilitation centers. One can also approach their mental health professional who can refer them to a certified art therapist. You can also check if rehabilitation centers near you offer art therapy, and approach them.