How Creative Arts Can Change the Way People Deal with Mental Illness
by Aneri Pattani, Posted: November 5, 2018
Excerpt courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer…
A crack in the wall. Most people wouldn’t even notice it. But for Danielle Hark, it was a spark of inspiration.
Six months after giving birth to her first daughter in 2010, Hark, a writer and photographer from Millburn, N.J., fell into a severe depression. Getting out of bed became impossible. Anxiety struck whenever she considered leaving the house. Thoughts of suicide loomed.
One day in the shower, she suddenly felt she couldn’t breathe. “I thought I was dying,” she recalled. “I didn’t need to kill myself because I was about to be dead.”
Hark reached for her phone to call for help, but accidentally snapped a photo instead. Then she noticed the crack and thought, “That would make a good picture.”
“Just that one thought and just that one breath helped me to become more present,” she said.
Photography didn’t cure her depression, but it started her on a journey of recovery — one that she continues today. Taking photographs gets her out of the house, engaging with the world around her, and transforming things that some see as ugly — crumbling paint, cracks in a sidewalk — into art.
Hark has founded a website for photographers affected by mental illness, hoping to raise awareness and encourage others to document their recovery. On Nov. 10, she’ll be sharing her story at the debut of a chamber music ensemble focused on mental health.
It’s one of a growing number of creative endeavors that are bringing mental health center stage. Most of these initiatives — from theater performances to local art shows — aim to create awareness. But for those with mental illness, such as Hark, who stand at the center of these works as performers and creators, the process becomes a path to healing. It’s not a cure, but it provides a sense of control over their lives that can sometimes feel lost.
Research shows that engaging in creative-arts therapy — which can include visual arts, dance, theater, and poetry — can reduce pain and anxiety, help people cope with depression and trauma, and aid in treatments for addiction.
Performing in a play or taking photos is not the same as taking part in creative-arts therapy, said Rachel Brandoff, coordinator of the art-therapy specialization in counseling at Thomas Jefferson University, but “it’s a parallel process in many ways.” Creative-arts therapy involves a trained professional who guides and interprets the work. But engaging in a creative work on one’s own can still help people find purpose, better understand their emotions, and connect with others.
“People can have a really powerful and transformative experience even if it’s not therapy,” Brandoff said.
Over the years, Hark has used…