Art Therapy : Prevention or Cure

Like most art therapists, I would rather devote my time and energy to prevention of mental illness rather than curing. Wouldn?t it be more productive to address the roots of our sickness as a people rather than treating the symptoms? A preventative model of health care aims to prevent rather than cure and that is why is saves everyone time, money and suffering. A preventative approach bans cigarettes to prevent cancer deaths and encourages seatbelts to prevent road deaths, so why don?t we structure our environment in such a way as to prevent mental illness? For shortsighted economic reasons, we choose to compartmentalize our problems as a society rather than look at them globally and address the core issues. We have prisons for people who commit crimes and we have the psychiatric complex for people experiencing mental illness but prisons do not address the systemic social issues at the root of crime and psychiatry does not tackle the social causes of mental illness.

Fortunately, art-as-therapy has historically demonstrated an ability to address both the social and individual aspects of our problems simultaneously through dance, music, literature, painting or theatre. Throughout history art has been quelling the personal and societal ills, which quietly threaten to overwhelm us. Art-as-therapy has been taking the personal and making it political by taking the individual and making it social. Art-as-therapy is naturally preventative because it employs therapeutic creativity in the service of sustainable wellbeing and not just as a means to a finite end. After all, psychological and spiritual wellbeing are a matter of process, not product. There is no finite point at which a person can claim complete health. Instead, we have to work at health. Art Therapists recognize that just as vitamins help to prevent us from getting sick with colds, art-as-therapy helps to prevent us from becoming sick with isolation and anxiety.

Oddly enough, when we look around we do not see prevention-oriented centers for health, only centers for people who are sick. An exception to this is private centers for physical health where exercise reduces the risk factors associated with obesity. Yet there are no preventative centers for mental health even though art-as-therapy can reduce the risk factors for developing mental illness. A preventative health model reduces risk factors, and art-as-therapy is a big part of that model. The preventative model recognizes that group lifestyle choices are the single most important factor in determining health. Ultimately, the lifestyle choice to engage the creative process regularly reduces the risk of depression and anxiety just as surely as the choice to use seat belts reduces death on the road. If you are not convinced that a preventative model is right for us, then consider how the preventable behaviours of smoking, drinking or overeating eventually cost billions of tax dollars to the health care system. So much of the physical and psychosocial ills facing us today could be prevented but our current approach does not prevent, it only wants to cure. Curing is where the money?s at.

Art therapists must involve themselves in the defining and treating of mental health issues because such matters are far too important to be left to the following handful of specialists. A psychiatrist or pharmacist will tell you that depression is biochemical, a general practitioner doesn?t necessarily have any views on depression but can prescribe medication to you for some reason, the analyst may say that depression is deep rooted in childhood experience while a cognitive behavioural psychologist is likely to chalk it all up to faulty thinking. Though I agree with the cognitive behaviourists that our faulty thoughts and actions get us into trouble, I can not endorse any model which treats shared social issues like depression and anxiety or even crime as distinct and disconnected problems occurring in individuals. Even though CBT does purport to have the best record in treating depression and anxiety, art-as-therapy could double that success within a preventative model by helping many people at once and reducing the need for treatment. Isn?t less suffering what we all want in the first place?

The mental health apparatus tends to react when individuals come forth with symptoms, but has no plan or means for addressing the concerns of entire communities. As communities we may be experiencing poverty induced depression, racism induced apathy-anger or consumerism inflicted isolation-anxiety? Where has our collective interest in helping each other through social action gone? It appears we live in an ?I-pod? society, and earphones plug the holes we used to use to listen to each other. In the ?I-pod? world, community has come to mean millions of people poking each other on facebook. In spite of our involuntary isolation from each other, we remain inextricably bound in a ?we-pod? by our collective experience of humanity which is at any given moment a little bit angry, depressed, anxious or apathetic. Unfortunately, we only pay attention to these feelings once they are well underway to making us feel collectively sick or comfortably numb.

In counterweight to numbness and isolation, there are growing numbers of people devoting their professional lives to prevention as art therapists, musicians, natural food specialists, Yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, and martial arts instructors, school teachers and artists. These folks recognize that illness prevention is an active process that consists not merely of dodging risk factors but actively seeking health through informed lifestyle choices such as fostering the creative process for the mind and eating vegetables for the body. Much more than mere entertainment, this process of creativity is essential to quality living and staying healthy. My bet is that people who espouse the preventative action way of life do not cost the government much money as health care consumers.

While the current health care structure is usually called upon once problems are blazing, our abilities as art therapists actually extend far beyond this use. In a dream I keep having, art therapists find a way to put this simple question to the people: ?Do you believe that creativity is essential to your wellbeing?? From the overwhelmingly affirmative response to that question, emerges a wellspring of prevention clinics on a scale similar to medical walk in clinics and CLSC?s. Prevention centers would provide government subsidized rates for art-as-therapy services to anyone who believes that creativity is needed in their lives. In an open studio scenario, ordinary citizens drop in without appointment to cultivate a creative process towards sustainable wellbeing. A sense of community emerges from artistic creation just as a sense of family does from procreation. Those who want families make babies while those who want community make art with babies. The clinics have several floors and serve entire neighbourhoods by offering art-as-therapy, exercise facilities, yoga studios, playback theatre workshops lead by drama therapists, social discourse about shared issues like depression and anxiety and how best to promote prevention…

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