Art as Medication

“I always knew something was wrong. When I was seven, I climbed onto the roof of my two-story house, and was going to jump off. This manifested in my teenage years with more isolated behaviour, and after 10 years of marriage I had a nervous breakdown in 1997… But I’m not crazy. I just have a mental illness.”

Troy Cowley is a university-educated Brisbane artist. He has suffered from mental health issues for much of his life. His conditions of depression and bipolar weren’t diagnosed until his late 20s, despite earlier episodes of suggestive behaviour.

Troy Cowley
Troy Cowley

Following a nervous breakdown, Troy became involved with Art from the Margins. Art from the Margins is a Brisbane based program ran by the Wesley Mission which aims to bring together artists, whose creative development is limited by homelessness, disability, and disadvantage. Art from the Margins offers art classes, to grant individuals with the opportunity to engage with wider community in new ways, while expanding their skills, networking with other artists and find new opportunities to present their art to society.

The connection between mental illness and the dependence upon artistic expression has historically been a topic of enquiry. Culture depends on the creativity of the human psyche. Science indicates that creative engagement can decrease anxiety, stress, and mood disturbances, similar to medicinal treatments. Troy recognizes art as a form of medication. “When I do art, it does for me what medication can’t,” he said. “It usually takes me to a peaceful place and allows me to forget everything. I get so focused, that the mental anguish I’m feeling lessens. I find that very therapeutic. Art from the Margins has helped me use art as a form of treatment.”

It is well recognised, that as human beings, we use art as an indispensable foundation for life. It is a creative process, and powerful vehicle of communication that surpasses the written word. Physiologically, the human brain is divided into two parts known as the left and right hemisphere. The left brain is considered to be rational and censoring, while the right brain is used for creativity. The process of being artistic stimulates and exercises the right brain, which strengthens the connection between the hemispheres. This allows individuals to achieve the full potential of their mind.

Jane O’Sullivan, the program coordinator of Masters of Mental Health in Art Therapy at the University of Queensland, describes art as preverbal. “Cavemen communicated with art, dance and music, right back when it began. It’s something inbuilt in all of us. We’ve always thought in images.” Ms. O’Sullivan also identifies the connection between mental illness and the need for artistic expression. “The thing about mental illness,” she said, “Is that sometime it’s really hard to describe or understand what is happening to you. And by using art, you can access another language.” The language of the right brain.

Troy Cowley
Troy Cowley

Art from the Margins aims to offer individuals access to this other form of expression via art classes and artistic support. It also gives the artists the opportunity to display their work in exhibitions. In 2011 Troy was an ‘emerging artist’ award winner in the Art from the Margins Brisbane Festival, and had his work was displayed in Graydon Gallery, in New Farm, Brisbane.

Ms. O’Sullivan says the program offered by Art From the Margins, is a great asset to the Brisbane community. “This particular program takes the byproduct of art therapy to another level,” she says. Giving artists the opportunity to exhibit their art, “is a therapeutic a way to build your self-esteem by creating something and then choosing to display it to people and say, this is me… this is what I’m about. It’s very empowering,” she believes.

Troy recognises this empowerment. “Art from the Margins has given me exposure, and a source of artistic education. It also helps me connect with the community. On a personal level, I isolate with my mental illness. This can go on for months, and the program gives me people to share my art with. I’ve met a lot of good people that personally and professionally understand what I’m going through. There’s a sense of mutual understanding that’s non judgmental. And I like that. Nobody turns around and says, ‘there’s Troy that mental, crazy guy’. I’m not crazy. I just have a mental illness. I’m quite a smart guy, and that gets recognised.”

Science has indicated the power of art in the process of recovery and healing. Precisely how creative expression encourages healing may forever remain mysterious, but the ability of people to express their feelings and communicate ideas beyond the capacity of words, must be expanded in the world of health care. Art therapy must be considered part of the healing process, in conjunction with medical treatment.

The last century has seen the proliferation of the field of medicine. It’s now time to go one step further and consider artistic expression as a key step in the course of wholesome healthcare. Programs similar to Art From the Margins, can make a real difference to individuals such as Troy Cowley. This understanding and application of the arts must be seen as an irreplaceable foundation in the quest for enlightened citizenship. All will stand to benefit. As Pablo Picasso, arguably the best-known artist of the 20th-century once said, “Art is the lie that enables us to realise the truth.”

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