SEATTLE, Washington — Poverty not only impacts people’s physical health but their mental health as well. In light of this, artists and psychologists worldwide have pushed for art therapy initiatives as it benefits impoverished communities. According to the Art therapy Association, art therapy uses the creative process to “improve cognitive functions, foster self-esteem, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce or resolve conflicts and distress and advance societal and ecological change.” This can manifest in impactful activities such as community visual art projects, musical performances and creative writing.
How Poverty Affects One’s Mental Health
People suffering from poverty frequently have to think about how to acquire food, education and health care for themselves and their families. Moreover, society often stigmatizes and discriminates against those living in poverty. These socio-economic factors increase the likelihood of mental illnesses for people living below the poverty line.
Furthermore, people with mental disorders and their families are more likely to fall into poverty. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers “mental disorders” to consist of the cognitive and behavioral spectrums in the tenth revision of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems. These spectrums include depression, schizophrenia, intellectual disabilities, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, autism and dementia, among others.
Mental health support has not been a priority of many health systems around the world. This is particularly true in developing countries where immediate care services and hospitals receive the majority of health care funding. According to the WHO, 76% to 85% of people with severe mental disorders in low-income and middle-income countries don’t receive treatment for their conditions. Moreover, due to the unequal distribution of care and countries’ inefficient use of resources, the WHO calculated that globally, the annual mental health care spending accounts for less than $2 per person. This amount is significantly lower in low-income countries, with mental health funding accounting for less than $0.25 per person.
These statistics, coupled with the reality that many impoverished populations do not have much access to mental health services, demonstrate the need for creating innovative ways of supporting the mental health of the world’s poor.
How Art Therapy Can Help
Art therapy can be used in a variety of ways in impoverished countries depending on communities’ needs. In Kingston, Jamaica, an art therapy experiment, including visual art, music and dance activities, was carried out with at-risk youth between the ages of 8 and 9. During the two-year period during which the study took place, teachers reported that the students involved in art therapy exhibited less aggressive behavior, and increased focus during lessons.
This creative form of therapy benefits people living with poverty-associated trauma as well. For instance, a study followed an art therapy project in Rwanda with survivors from the 1994 genocide. In the experiment, the young adult genocide survivors’ making of a box and its designs “functioned as a catalyst for expression, healing and reconnection with the self.” Although their trauma can never be erased, the study observed promising self-expression and self-discovery in the participants.
Art Therapy Benefits the Community
Art therapy benefits extend beyond individuals’ well-being to improving the health of entire communities. Community art events provide a space for free dialogue and expression in underprivileged communities, which can lead to activism and social change.
One compelling example of art therapy’s impact in a community is the nonprofit international organization, Artolution. The nonprofit organization initiates public art projects led by local communities worldwide, allowing populations to express themselves amid their differing circumstances and experience. According to Artolution, the organization has “first hand experienced the innate resilience that lives within each individual in the communities where we work and how story-telling through art creates the atmosphere for positive social change.”
One of Artolution’s largest projects was in the Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps, where it facilitated a community-made mural to foster better relations between young Jordanians and Syrians.
Humanitarian organizations worldwide incorporate art therapy and community-led art projects in their aid programs for countries in need. However, to improve underprivileged communities’ social, emotional and cultural resilience, organizations should consider adding more mental health initiatives to relief programs. While people often believe art to be a feature of a developed society, these organizations are working to make art a force for development and change.
—Christopher Orion Bresnahan