Supplemental Treatment For Depression: Art And Its Role In Depression Treatment

Reviewed by Aaron Horn, LMFT

Published 12/22/2020

Switch on the television or flip open a laptop. Within a short period of time, some mention of depression is likely to float up, whether in the form of a plot point in a television drama or an ad for antidepressant medications. Depression itself is not unheard of or stigmatized the way that it used to be, leading to greater changes in depression treatment options and a wider range of treatment modalities available. Although there are two standard methods of treatment used to manage depression, many people with depression find solace and support through other means. These may include the self-expression provided by art—creating a drawing of depression and other forms of creative expression, including journaling, writing poems and making a collage.

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What Is Depression?

Depression is a mood disorder. The term “depression” is a general term used to describe a range of disorders, broadly labeled “depressive disorders.” Depressive disorders include Major Depressive Disorder, Persistent Depressive Disorder, Depressive Disorder-Not Specified, and Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder. All of these have the same basic set of symptoms, with varying intensities and severities. Major Depressive Disorder, for instance, is characterized by persistent feelings of hopelessness, apathy, or more, for at least two weeks. Persistent Depressive Disorder is diagnosed only when depressive symptoms have persisted for two years or longer.

Depression has many different contributing factors; genetic components can make depression far more likely, as can a catalyst, such as the death of a loved one. Depression is among the more treatable mental disorders and is typically treated through a combination of intervention methods, usually including at least some form of therapy and some type of medication. The varying degrees of depression will determine the type of therapy or treatment that is necessary and the likelihood of remission or the loss of consistent symptoms. Securing a depression diagnosis requires an evaluation by a mental health professional. Still, there are many other resources, including online tests, which can help you determine the likelihood of your symptoms pointing to depression or somewhere else.

Standard Depression Treatment: Pharmaceuticals And Therapy

Depression is among the most common mental disorders in existence. Some estimates suggest between 7-10% of the population will experience depression symptoms in their lifetime. While these numbers point to something unfortunate in the realm of mental health prevention and avoidance, they also signal some good news for people with depression. Because there are so many cases of depression in the general population, there are numerous treatment methods that have been proven to be effective in successful, long-term recovery efforts. The most common starting point in treating depression is talk therapy. In talk therapy, patients can discuss their experiences and develop healthy strategies to manage depression symptoms and the fallout from depressive symptoms. Talking through some of the triggers that worsen symptoms can also be an important component of treatment, as they can tease out any underlying causes for depressive symptoms.

Pharmaceutical intervention is also useful in treating depression, the most common type of medication being antidepressants. Antidepressants are designed to boost mood, improve morale, and treat the myriad of symptoms that often come with a depressive disorder. For some, depression comes with insomnia, and an antidepressant that combines sleep medication and antidepressants is the best option. For others, a combination of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication is the best option. For still others, antidepressants must accommodate other medications and conditions, such as pregnancy. Pharmaceutical intervention can take weeks or months to be effective and may need to be continually adjusted as different diagnoses and life situations arise. Nevertheless, antidepressants continue to be considered among the foremost treatment options available for the treatment of depression.

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Alternative Depression Treatment

Although a combination of therapy and antidepressants is considered the ideal and most effective means of battling depression, many people find additional relief by adding alternative treatment methods, the most common of which are diet changes, lifestyle changes, and the addition of unusual healing modalities, such as meditation and yoga. Dietary changes might involve removing excess sugar and processed foods and limiting caffeine intake. These changes can help improve general health, support depression treatment, and limit sleep difficulty, easing some sleep issues associated with depression.

Lifestyle interventions designed to help treat depression include an exercise routine, though the type of exercise may vary with different depression symptoms. Depression that comes along with anxiety, for instance, might warrant a gentler approach to exercise, such as long-distance walking. In contrast, depression that comes with sleep difficulty might warrant a more intense exercise to support greater daily fatigue. Limiting stress, exposure to light in the late evening, and more can help support health, encourage healthy sleep habits, and generally improve someone’s mental state and general function.

Meditation and yoga can both be used to help ease depression symptoms, though these are not recommended as the sole sources of treatment. Instead, mental health practitioners may encourage meditation and consistent yoga practice to further encourage an individual’s ability to recognize the different ways depression may present in their body and develop strategies to ease the physical symptoms of depression. This can involve using depression symbols during meditation practices or identifying symbols of depression in your body's tension as you move.

Art And Depression: Are Art And Depression Linked?

Art is unique in its relation to treatment. Although depression treatment standards include talk therapy and pharmaceutical intervention and alternative means of treatment include dietary changes and lifestyle interventions, art may not be the first line of defense, a therapist or depression individual turns to. Despite the uncommon professional linkage of the two, there exists something of a stereotype around depression and art: the notion of the depressed artist, whose work is somehow more profound, more touching, or more intense than that of an artist who is not in some way pained. As it turns out, this link might not be far off, even if it is somewhat reductive. Art can be a potent, cathartic, even therapeutic tool for people who suffer from depression or depressive symptoms, lending some credibility to the link between depression and creativity. Depression drawings, depression tattoos, and other types of art about depression can provide a unique and important outlet for the intense and overwhelming feelings that come with depression.

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Art and mental health have frequently been linked, and some evidence supports this link. People who are considered creative—particularly in the arts, such as writing and painting—are more prone to mental disorders and may be more likely than the general population to have a predilection toward the arts. However, the exact mechanism behind this link is not known, as depression could lead to the creation of more artwork, or artwork could encourage people to delve deeper into their own feelings and experiences, boosting a journey toward depression. Despite numerous attempts to determine whether artistry and depression are linked, there is still no definitive answer. Instead, there is the suggestion that there is a link between artistry and mental illness (though not a link between all creativity and depression, specifically), but a lack of understanding as to the nature and origin of the link.

Art Therapy: Another Avenue In Depression Treatment

Art has been consistently linked to health and healthy development. In adults with dementia, art is useful in warding off additional symptoms and bringing dementia patients “back” to more fully engage with their surroundings. In children, art therapy can be used as a form of communication and expression that can help alleviate depression and anxiety symptoms. These are only two of the uses for art therapy. Art therapy has a wide range of uses and it can be found in countless settings. One of the settings where it has been a great success is in the therapy room. Drawing, writing, and other art forms show immense promise in the treatment of depression.

Art therapy used to treat depression can be useful for a few reasons, including improved self-esteem, increased self-expression, and consistent means of working through depression and seeing your feelings through art. Depression is an internal experience, and seeing it expressed visually can provide some relief from symptoms. Although art is often linked to depression via the brooding artist's notion, the artwork can be useful in treating depression. It allows people with depression to have an outlet for their feelings—tangible and accessed without a great deal of time or money required upfront. Like journaling and other forms of creation, art offers people with depression a means of creating—creating an abstract piece of art or drawing the catalyst for depression, perhaps—without the pressure of succeeding or creating work for any one artist.

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Art And Depression: A Looping Link

Art and depression exist in something of a loop: artistry and depression are frequently linked. People with depression may be more predisposed toward artistry, and “depressed art” can also provide an important outlet for depression to heal and express their emotional state and needs. Although art has long been regarded as something of a “fluffy” discipline, or something only a select few can engage in, art therapy is extremely inclusive and useful because growth is in the process: art therapy is not designed to provide people with depression with a set of portfolio-worthy pieces but is instead designed to offer a consistent, easily-accessed, and powerful outlet for grief and other feelings, allowing anyone experiencing depressive symptoms to find a way to express what they are feeling through drawings of depression and other artwork, and healing themselves in the process.