Last summer I was taken by a piece of music I first heard on an Apple commercial for a new MacBook Pro. I investigated and discovered it was by a musician in Austin, Texas, named Daniel Johnston and was called “The Story of an Artist.” The critics didn’t necessarily like his music, but I certainly liked that particular piece. Reading more about Johnston and discovering a documentary about him, I learned he has experienced significant mental illness throughout his life, and I came to see that perhaps his music played a role in his life beyond what the critics understood.

Later I came across an article about a photographer, Louis Quail, who had published a book of artistic photos telling the story of his brother Justin’s life. Big Brother is a tribute to a sibling living with schizophrenia who is nevertheless extraordinary and resilient in a life full of struggle that incorporated his own forms of art and beauty.

My own dabblings in the art world are nothing to write home about, but around the time that I was learning about Daniel Johnston and Justin Quail I took a Peer-to-Peer art class that taught me about acrylic paints. And while I’ll never be quite as talented as some of our Discovery Day Treatment clients, as you can see from the beautiful piece that accompanies this blog, I quite enjoyed it.

Art takes many forms—music, painting, writing, dancing, performance. The convergence of these varied experiences helped organize my thoughts about art and mental health.

  1. Art therapy. People can do therapy through art, whether through the guidance of a trained expressive art therapist or through their own exploration of their artistic nature.
  2. Camaraderie. People can be people, learn art, and be part of something. It’s an ordinary outlet to make friends and enjoy social settings. Sometimes we joke about artists having
    certain kinds of personalities or being on the fringe, but the truth is art is another way for people of any temperament to enjoy learning something new and making new friends.
  3. Art for art’s sake. Art doesn’t need a reason. It doesn’t have to achieve an outcome to have value or add meaning to a person’s life.

I went on a home visit with a music therapist to see a three-year-old girl with Down syndrome. We went in to the family’s home and sat on the floor, and the little girl got her little chair and sat right in front of the therapist. It wasn’t only play, of course. The therapist was working on cognitive functioning, language development, and social interaction. All of these areas of development were helped by this one enjoyable intervention. But it didn’t hurt that the child was having a great time because of art.

Art brings with it diverse possibilities for mental health or other health care. We can’t limit ourselves to interventions that fit into boxes of certain sizes or shapes. Let’s open ourselves to what art brings to our own health and the ways we can share art with others for the sake of their health as well.