Art Therapy May Ease Severe Depression

In a new Swedish study, patients with severe and moderately severe depression showed significant improvement after 10 sessions of individual art therapy compared to those in the control group.

The research was conducted by licensed occupational and art therapist Christina Blomdahl, Ph.D., as part of her dissertation at Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

Blomdahl recruited 43 patients with severe or moderately severe depression to participate in individual hands-on art therapy which she had developed herself. The control group involved 36 people with the same levels of depression but who did not take part in art therapy.

The majority of the study participants were so debilitated by their depression that they had been unable to work. All of the participants were given different combinations of medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and physical therapy.

The individual art therapy took place in psychiatry or primary care and was conducted by a specially trained therapist. Each session began with a short briefing and a relaxation exercise. The patients used a variety of art tools, such as crayons and watercolors, and all of the lessons followed a predetermined curriculum.

“They followed the manual I had created in order to ensure that it was scientific, but although everyone was given the same theme to go on the patients responded very differently to the exercises,” said Blomdahl.

“The materials were simple, allowing people to doodle and feel free to express themselves the way they wanted to, and then they would talk about the picture and its significance to the participant.”

After participating in 10 one-hour-long treatment sessions, the patients had improved on an average of almost five points on a rating scale used for depression. Some of the factors assessed were anxiety, sleep, initiative, and emotional involvement.

These improved ratings are a huge boost for patients with depression, often leading to a notable change in everyday life and perhaps the ability to return to work. No change was seen in the control group.

“The conclusion is that it was the art therapy that facilitated their improvement,” said Blomdahl. “The focal point was that people felt like they were meeting themselves; that the picture served as a mirror where you could see and make new discoveries about yourself, a bit like coming to life.”

“Even the people who did not experience any direct benefit from the treatment had shown improvement. Painting pictures based on themes and discussing the pictures with the therapist promotes self-reflection and brain stimulation that takes place outside of the conscious mind,” she said.

“It is my hope that art therapy will be used in health care again. Based on evidence requirements it has been more or less scrapped by psychiatry, but this is one of the largest studies that has been conducted in this area, and it is a step that may lead to more people being trained in it and the method being used again.”

Source: University of Gothenburg