As the world slowly recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic with increasing vaccination rates worldwide, health professionals suggest it is also time to address the second, more silent pandemic: the mental health crisis. Amid continuing lockdowns, people can turn to a new, unexpected ally for help: art.
When the first news reports of COVID-19 cases reaching the United States came out in March 2020, articles focused on known symptoms of the virus – a fever, difficulty breathing, loss of smell or taste, and body aches. But it was only after a few months that new collateral health issues started to appear. Physical distancing, stay-at-home orders, and isolation took a significant toll on people’s mental health.
In a report released in August 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) looked into mental health, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation during the COVID-19 pandemic. During late June 2020, 40.9% of 5,470 U.S. adults surveyed reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse, with 30.9% reporting anxiety and depression symptoms, and 26.3% reporting symptoms of trauma- and stressor-related disorder (TSRD) related to the pandemic. The CDC report revealed that symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder increased considerably in the U.S. from April to June of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019. The conclusion from the report was clear: “The public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic should increase intervention and prevention efforts to address associated mental health conditions.” In addition, the pandemic severely disrupted mental health services in 93% of 130 countries surveyed worldwide.
“Cases and deaths can be counted. Less easy to measure is the toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on the mental health of so many people,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), said in a press release.
The WHO, whose primary role is to direct international health within the United Nations’ system and to lead partners in global health responses, proposed a new initiative to improve mental, social, and environmental health. The WHO is now backing a year-long fundraising campaign, The Healing Arts 2021 campaign, to mobilize the art world in its response to the mental health crisis caused by COVID-19.
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Launched in the United Kingdom from March 22 through March 26, the Healing Arts initiative aimed to raise $15 million for the WHO Foundation and a new fund of artist-led projects that contribute to improved mental health in the wake of COVID-19. This initiative to use arts to combat the mental health toll of the pandemic confirms results from a 2019 WHO report about the role of the arts in improving health and well-being.
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The report by Daisy Fancourt and Saoirse Finn reviewed evidence of the relationship between arts and health. Even then, results showed that people who engage with the arts are more likely to lead healthier lives in general. But more specifically, the report says, “there is a large body of research showing how arts engagement can enhance multidimensional subjective well-being, including affective well-being (positive emotions in our daily lives), evaluative well-being (our life satisfaction), and eudemonic well-being (our sense of meaning, control, autonomy, and purpose in our lives).” Results showed activities such as making and listening to music, dancing, art, and visiting cultural sites are all associated with stress management and prevention, including lower levels of biological stress in daily life and lower daily anxiety.
While art therapy has been formally studied, recognized, and applied since the mid 20th century, it still suffers from some stigma despite proved benefits. But how does it work?
Art therapy manager Tammy Shella explains that our brains have a verbal side and a visual side, which are two different paths. Shella uses the example of post-traumatic stress being stored in the nonverbal areas of our brain making it difficult for people suffering from PTSD to verbalize their trauma. In these cases, art therapy can help patients process what they might not be able to through regular therapy sessions. Research shows art therapy proved beneficial to inmates, refugee children, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, and other situations where a sudden increase in isolation affected people’s mental health.
Despite such evidence, “many countries still have not addressed the opportunities that exist for using the arts to support health,” authors of the 2019 WHO report wrote.
“We call on every country to include services to promote mental health and to prevent and treat mental health conditions as part of its plan to respond to and recover from the pandemic. I’m grateful to Healing Arts for drawing attention to mental health, and for highlighting the role that the arts can play in supporting and sustaining mental health,” Dr. Ghebreyesus said.
In 2020, art stood out as a powerful tool amid social justice protests in the U.S. and around the world. As governments continue to draft plans to address the fallouts from the pandemic, maybe the arts will gain recognition as a reliable resource to help combat the mental health pandemic.