The benefits of art in a child’s education are widespread. Art can help kids express themselves and understand the world around them. Art is usually a hands-on experience and fun. For low-income students, studies have found that kids who have more arts education in school see long-term benefits by both academic and social standards.
Tori Wardrip, an art teacher at Lewis and Clark Middle School in Billings, Montana, wanted to explore the benefits of art more deeply while addressing some of the mental health issues she saw students experiencing.
Last year, Wardrip launched Creative Courage, a school-based support group for students struggling with mental health concerns. Similar to individual counseling, support groups often encourage individuals to speak about their struggles. But talking about mental health can make people feel vulnerable, especially adolescents. This is why Creative Courage uses nonverbal tools, like mindfulness, journaling and art activities, to help kids identify and express their emotions.
“Students can be closed off, especially if they feel like outcasts,” says Wardrip. “I wanted to create a ‘safe’ space where they could express what they’re going through.”
While the creative process in Wardrip’s group is an open canvas, each self-expression exercise teaches the students an emotional skill, like self-awareness, social skills and self-acceptance.
For example, students may create “mood mandalas” by drawing and coloring symbols to convey their inner worlds. They can also paint their worries on small “comfort” boxes and fill the container with personal items that bring solace. Others list their insecurities in “place book” journals, including healing words, like “Learn to accept your flaws and learn to accept beauty.” All group members receive “place books” where they privately record their thoughts and feelings.
During each gathering, Wardrip shares phrases like, “Remember, you don’t feel better by feeling less” and “Your thoughts are always valid.” Using these prompts, she invites students to begin a discussion. Although they’re not required to participate, most of them do. For many students, being surrounded by a community of nonjudgmental listeners helps them open up, and kids who once felt afraid begin to feel brave, according to Wardrip.
Mental Health is Personal
Mental illness is a topic Wardrip knows intimately. For nearly a decade, she silently battled depression, hiding her psychological pain from family and friends.
“My depression never made sense to me,” she says. “I didn’t understand why I felt hopeless when I had a good life. I stayed quiet because I didn’t want people to think less of me.”
It wasn’t until Wardrip began a graduate school program, Creative Pulse at the University of Montana, that she began to heal from her depression. Creative Pulse is a master’s program, teaching educators how to integrate art, creativity, movement and mindfulness into the classroom.
“In my program, I was challenged to do the most important thing I could do for myself, which helped me open up about my depression and suicidal tendencies. I firmly believe the program saved my life,” says Wardrip.
During her graduate studies, she relied on art and mindfulness to help her access and express emotions she had kept bottled up for years. Eventually, Wardrip opened up to close family and friends. Her journey taught her that shame often prevents people from seeking psychological care.
Unfortunately, Wardrip’s experience is not unusual. Although depression and anxiety are the most common mental health concerns, surveys have found that 80 percent of adolescents with a diagnosable anxiety disorder and 60 percent of depressed kids do not receive treatment. In fact, a recent survey conducted by Kaiser Permanente found 55 percent of people view depression as a personal weakness, and 24 percent of millennials believe most people can recover without professional services, like psychotherapy.*
“I realize how stigma is silencing, especially for adolescents. I want to be a role model for our students, which is why I began Creative Courage,” says Wardrip.
Many of the kids in Wardrip’s 10-week group struggle with depression, anxiety and gender dysphoria. Others feel lonely and out of place. All of these students are searching for someone who can understand their suffering.
To help create a safe space, Wardrip begins each meeting with a wellness check-in, followed by a guided meditation and an art-related activity. Her group combines creative process with psychological theory.
According to the American Art Therapy Association, artistic expression may decrease anxiety, feelings of anger and depression. This creative process can also enhance cognitive abilities, foster greater self-awareness and help students regulate their emotions.
Despite these findings, there’s an equity gap in arts education. A survey conducted in 2012 by the Department of Education discovered students in low-poverty schools were more likely to receive art instruction than kids attending high-poverty schools. While proposed federal cuts could eliminate art education in many schools, teachers like Wardrip advocate for art inclusion.
“Art teaches kids problem-solving and decision-making skills,” says Wardrip. “Creativity also promotes identity development, helping students find their ‘place’ in the world.”
Wardrip finds that by the end of the 10-week course, students begin to heal. Her data from last year’s group suggest participants’ symptoms of anxiety and depression lessened by 40 percent. To measure this change, each group member completed an anxiety and depression questionnaire: one before the group began, and another after completing the course.
For many of these kids, art becomes a tool, helping them to share their authentic selves in a community that understands.
Juli Fraga is a psychologist and writer in San Francisco. You can find her on Twitter @dr_fraga
*This post has been updated to more accurately reflect the results of the survey.