The therapeutic power of art in mental health recovery
People have long used art as a way to express themselves and work through life’s experiences and emotions.
By Taylor Knopf North Carolina Health News
For Iggy Cosky, music has been the one constant in his life.
“The therapeutic value of music was very obvious to me at a very young age,” he said.
At 7 years old, he fell in love with the guitar when he first heard Eric Clapton playing on the car radio. After that, Cosky’s father found the young boy strumming tennis rackets and broomsticks; he bought Cosky his first guitar.
“I love recording music,” explained the now 32-year-old Raleigh-based musician. “I use it as a process to psychoanalyze what’s going on with myself because subconsciously lyrics will come up to the surface. I don’t know what I’m saying but they tell me what’s going on with me. The song tells me how I’m feeling.”
Cosky has always leaned into music as a way to help him understand and cope with his life’s trauma. As a child, he witnessed the deaths of both parents in a murder-suicide. Cosky moved in with a legal guardian, his older half-sister, whose husband was a guitar teacher.
“He saw I had an interest in art and music, and he provided me with everything I needed to express myself,” Cosky recalled of the man who became like a father to him.
“He essentially gave me the keys to myself, which is the most freeing thing an adult can do for a teenager who has experienced horrors in life,” he said.
Cosky later lost another sister to suicide and his brother to a drug overdose. He said he self-medicated with drugs and alcohol and was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Cosky went on to survive more trauma, including his own suicide attempts, homelessness and a near fatal drug overdose that landed him in the emergency room at age 30. There, he decided to make a change.
People have long used creative expression to process life’s experiences, behaviors and emotions. Some, like Cosky, are drawn to art naturally. Others have discovered its healing power through therapy.
Art in therapy
“Art making is inherently therapeutic. [Art therapy] creates a space for people to have the benefits of just processing the meaning and content of whatever comes up in their artwork. It’s using art in order to better express yourself or discover certain patterns that you’re engaging in,” said Anna Celander, a licensed clinical therapist and art therapist based in Durham.
Celander has led art therapy sessions for patients in every kind of setting, from hospital inpatient units, to intensive outpatient programs to private therapy, both in-person and virtually. She’s worked with a lot of patients going through life transitions, or dealing with medical diagnoses such as cancer, or who are struggling with addiction issues. She’s also counseled caregivers of people with long-term physical or mental illness.
She said she starts with establishing treatment goals and incorporates traditional mental health therapy techniques, such as talk-based cognitive behavioral therapy. For some patients who have never worked with art, it can seem intimidating. Celander said she will start them with something like a collage, which is less threatening.
“The art kind of guides the work and makes my job a lot easier, because a lot of stuff ends up coming up as people are expressing themselves creatively, and oftentimes they feel more safe doing it through art making than verbally,” she said.
At the start of the pandemic, Celander thought leading virtual art therapy sessions would be really difficult, but she said it’s been amazing and led to innovative forms of art.
One client took a work email about pandemic-related changes and used it to create blackout poetry, using Microsoft Paint to select words to express herself while covering the rest. Another client created an interactive video game where he tackled his mental health struggles. He shared it with friends and family and it opened the door for others to share about their mental health.
“People got really inspired through the virtual component, which I hadn’t anticipated and honestly didn’t have a lot of experience in,” she said. “So it ended up being really cool.”
Celander said she’s also watched patients soothe themselves through art during moments of anxiety.
“Maybe they’re having physical symptoms like sweaty palms or a racing heart when they’re talking or working through some of this stuff,” she explained, “and in that moment, helping them use their art materials often as a grounding experience. What are you smelling? What are you feeling and touching with your hands, whether it’s oil pastels, or chalk or watching watercolors drip down the page. So it’s both used as a kind of outlet and a grounding exercise.”
Art as mindfulness
When Charlotte-based artist Melissa Fish stopped drinking alcohol, she said she would get thirsty around happy hour each day. Someone in her recovery support group suggested she try baking to distract from her cravings.
So she did and it worked. She baked cookies and decorated them in royal icing designs.
Fish, 45, had always been interested in art. In college, she started as an art major but quickly changed to something else. Feelings of self doubt crept in and she thought she wasn’t good enough to be an artist. Fish got caught up in the college party scene and her alcohol addiction snuck up on her.
For the following decade, she stopped creating art altogether and kept drinking.
By the time Fish was baking cookies in recovery, she met artist Windi White, who is now the director of development at Healing Transitions in Raleigh. White also leads art therapy groups for program participants and encourages people to embrace colors, textures, shapes and movement rather than striving to make their art look like a certain picture in their head.
Fish said White saw her beautiful baked goods and fanned the creative embers in her. The two artists also bonded over their journeys of recovery from addiction and similar feelings of self-doubt as artists.
“Just by sharing that I had never felt comfortable calling myself an artist, and now I was saying, ‘No, I am an artist. I am creative. I am worthy of this expression,’” White said of their conversations.
Painting and creating other forms of art allows Fish to practice what mental health professionals would call mindfulness. When Fish is creating, she’s not thinking about the past, or planning out the week or worrying about the future.
“I’m literally where my feet are, where the art is. My brain is there. My body is there,” Fish said. “And you just kind of get in the zone, and it’s like being in a meditative state. I feel like that anytime I’m creating art.”
In October, White hosted Healing Transitions’ first art event called Art of Recovery, where Fish displayed her work publicly for the first time. Cosky also performed his music live at the event.
Art and community
As for Cosky, he’s found playing music with others to be therapeutic, too. At Healing Transitions, he was allowed to bring his guitar and amp to campus, and he jammed with others in the program.
Playing music while sober was new for him, and at first Cosky was concerned that he wouldn’t be as “tapped in” to the music, he said alluding to the romanticized idea some artists have about drugs and creativity. However, he discovered that writing, playing and recording music while sober gave him clarity and insight into himself.
“Being sober and doing it kind of clears the fog off the mirror, you can actually see yourself for what you really are and see all your blemishes, and those can be beautiful as well,” he said. “You don’t have to hide behind them by getting high or using alcohol or whatever.”
In recovery, Cosky said he has been able to purchase all the music equipment he previously sold off to buy heroin. He now has a modest recording studio in his room in a sober living house, including a synthesizer, drum machine, software, bass, guitars and microphones. He has everything he needs to make a record, but Cosky said he’s learned he doesn’t have to play all the instruments by himself. He can invite others in.
“Something I’ve learned through the process of getting into recovery is asking for help,” he said. “Recovery promotes community. You’re around like-minded people that know what it’s like to carry your pain.”
He’s taught guitar lessons to others in recovery and played in groups together. Now Cosky says he’s looking for more ways to help people experience the healing power of art and music.
North Carolina Health News is an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering all things health care in North Carolina. Visit NCHN at northcarolinahealthnews.org.