Art for mental health: The well-being benefits of practicing art with Frank Clark, MD

. 11 MIN READ

AMA Update covers a range of health care topics affecting the lives of physicians, residents, medical students and patients. From private practice and health system leaders to scientists and public health officials, hear from the experts in medicine on COVID-19, medical education, advocacy issues, burnout, vaccines and more.

There’s a strong connection between art and mental health. Joining us to discuss the well-being benefits of expressing yourself is Frank Clark, MD, a psychiatrist with Prisma Health and a poet. AMA Chief Experience Officer Todd Unger hosts.

Speaker

  • Frank Clark, MD, psychiatrist, Prisma Health; poet

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Unger: Hello and welcome to the AMA Update video and podcast. Today we're talking about how art can improve your mental health. I'm joined by Dr. Frank Clark, a psychiatrist in Greer, South Carolina. I'm Todd Unger, AMA's chief experience officer. Dr. Clark, such a pleasure to see you today.

Dr. Clark: Good to see you, Todd, hope all is well.

Unger: There's been a lot of talk about mental health during and after the pandemic, might come as a surprise to some people that there's a connection between art and mental health, and I think a lot of people would be surprised to learn just how deep a connection that can be. Dr. Clark, why don't we start by just talking about some of the specific benefits that art can have on your mental health?

Dr. Clark: Thank you for that question, Todd, and I appreciate you having me on today. There definitely is a—there definitely is intersectionality as it relates to arts and mental health. And the arts can be music. It can be writing. That could be poetry, fiction, nonfiction. That could be painting, coloring.

Some of the specific benefits that we have seen is that the arts can improve concentration. They can improve self-esteem. They can actually reduce stress. So there is a hormone that is secreted by the body known as cortisol whenever the body is under stress, and there have been plenty of studies to show that cortisol levels can be decreased when we engage in the arts and the positive impacts that it can have on our mental health.

So overall, positive benefits haven't really seen any evidence to support deleterious effects on—in terms of the arts on mental health but definitely positive.

Unger: Now, that was a pretty wide range of arts that you define there. How serious engagement in that does it take to achieve the benefits that you're talking about?

Dr. Clark: Well, I don't think you have to be a Walt Whitman or a Picasso, so to speak, or a Monet, to be engaged in the benefits of art. Just a couple of minutes a day can be therapeutic for people. I equate it to exercise.

We know that exercise, when we talk about physical fitness, is important for the body and the mind and the overall well-being. I think we have to look at something called, I would say, creative fitness, and how that also can impact us. So they say an apple a day keeps the doctor away. I would say maybe a poem a day or a writing exercise, whatever it may be, or just listening to music or singing or dancing, it's good for the body and what's good for the body is good for the mind.

Unger: You know, I'm in the middle of writing a book. I'm spending at least eight or nine hours a weekend trying to do this. I'm exhausted afterwards. Am I getting the benefits of what you're talking about?

Dr. Clark: I think you are. I mean, I think we always have to be mindful of our bandwidth. And sometimes we can get so engaged in our creative processes that we go to a different space, but I think it always is important to take time to rest. I'll go back to the exercise example.

As a runner, you can run yourself into the ground literally and figuratively speaking, and there's something called overtraining syndrome that people can develop if they exercise too much. I think maybe we could equate that to the creative process as well. Sometimes there's writer's block, which can sometimes be frustrating. And maybe that's when a time is to say, let me step away from this and come back to it another day.

Unger: Well, thank you for that. Dr. Clark, as a psychiatrist you've seen the benefits of art firsthand in your patients, but you also have your own experience. How have you turned to art throughout your career in medicine? And what impact has that had on you?

Dr. Clark: I appreciate that question, Todd. So poetry has been life-saving for me in so many ways. It has allowed me to tap into my creative genius over the years. And it's something that I really started getting engaged—or became engaged with during my medical school struggles.

And so I was diagnosed with depression during my medical school career and which really took a toll on me in more ways than one. And so I wanted to find an outlet besides running, and my prayer life and my social connections to really heal, and I found that poetry has been that cathartic antidote that has, again, been life-saving and life-changing for me.

I actually didn't write as much in residency, and even the last couple of years, things were just kind of—poetry kind of laid dormant for me. But then the pandemic happened, and then the racial unrest and political tensions. I had so many emotions about all these things that were occurring, and I needed to have more of somewhat of a resurgence.

And poetry—I actually look at the pandemic as a silver lining for me because it allowed me to get back into my creative space. And I haven't stopped. I've been full steam ahead.

Unger: Well, that's good news. Clearly, art has had such a meaningful impact on your life and many others. What kind of clinical research has been done to support these benefits and show that it's actually evidence-based?

Dr. Clark: That's a good question. So we can look back. The literature is replete with evidence to show the positive benefits that art can have on mental health. There's this term that many people may not be familiar with, but it's called neuroaesthetics, looking at how art can change the body, and the brain, and just behavior.

This is something that—this practice—this term was coined back in the 1990s, I believe. And there's been a lot of research where—looking at this process and how art can change the brain. There was a study actually done, I believe at the University of College of London, where they took participants and they underwent brain scans.

And they were shown images of their favorite artists. Or I'm sorry, major artists. And so basically what the participants—they were able to rate what their favorite paintings were, and that increased blood flow to their brain, increased by 10%, which would be equivalent to looking at a loved one.

And so the areas of the brain that were affected, we think about the pleasure centers of the brain. So when we think about dopamine—so for me, my dopamine is increased when I'm running, when I'm writing poetry. For you, it could be writing the book. We all have that pleasure center.

And so I think that's a very good study and illustration to show that, not only are we seeing the outward effects, but what is happening inside the brain as it relates to blood flow in certain areas.

Unger: Wow. Well, there are more ways than ever now for people to be creative and express themselves. Is there any difference in the types of art that people practice and the mental health benefits that they get from doing that?

Dr. Clark: I would say that—I don't necessarily—I haven't necessarily seen a difference. I encourage my patients to tap into their creative space whenever possible. For some, I have people that enjoy playing the guitar. For some, that's dancing. For some, that's singing. For some, that's writing poetry.

I go back to that—the importance of creative fitness. So whatever the art is that makes you feel happy, that brings you meaning and brings you joy, I say that you're going to see the same benefits no matter what form of art it is.

Unger: And it's interesting to hear you use the different kind of terminology because art, to me, is a very high bar, in terms of what I'm engaging in, but I love this concept of creative fitness. Do you think hearing kind of different terms and being intimidated by a term like art might be holding people back from giving it a try?

Dr. Clark: Absolutely. I believe that we were created with the gift of creativity. All of us have the creative niche, so to speak. I just don't think we have had the confidence to utilize that gift. And so if you think about coloring, we can all think back to our childhoods of just sitting down and coloring.

It takes creativity to do that, right? You're engaging with the picture that's in front of you. You're deciding what colors that you're going to use. It's all about self-discovery. So we have adult coloring books.

And when you talk to adults sometimes when you're providing treatment, they may say, I don't want to color. Like, why would I want to color? That's child's play. Quite the opposite. I know that I benefit from coloring.

My wife and I have adult coloring books, and that's a great way to connect. So I would encourage people to just sit 5 or 10 minutes. Again, you don't have to be one of the luminaries in the field of poetry, or music or dance to explore your creative side. Just have fun with it.

And then practice makes perfect I find that, over the years—I have found that, over the years, that my poetry has gotten better. A lot of that is because practice makes perfect. So the more you do, the better.

Unger: Well, do you have any advice for physicians who'd like to talk with their patients about art and its mental health benefits?

Dr. Clark: Absolutely. Oftentimes, we hear in the medical space that we should be prescribing exercise, which I wholeheartedly agree. I would add to that maybe we should be prescribing creativity, OK? And so when we're asking and checking in on our patients, we're asking how they're doing.

Maybe we say, what are you doing in the creative process? How has your creativity been lately? Last time we met, you said that you started taking drawing lessons or ceramics. How are you doing in that space?

I think that we can—medicines are very effective for individuals with mental health conditions and substance use disorders, but they're not the end all, be all. I think we have to think outside the box and we have to look at people from a holistic approach.

We are more—as my mentor would say, we are more than just a bag of chemicals. We are human beings. And we, as human beings, have feelings. So how can we tap into those feelings? And I think that's where the prescription for creativity comes into play.

Unger: I like that, bag of chemicals. Now, do you do like poetry or haikus on demand?

Dr. Clark: I can do—I can do some haikus or poetry on demand.

Unger: Do you want to take us out on one?

Dr. Clark: Sure. This is one called "Poetry And Me."

Tonight, joy lays with me, weightless and abundant, like feathers of a pillow. Good night.

Unger: Well that's the best ending to any AMA Update ever. Dr. Clark, thank you so much for being here. That's it for today's episode. You can find all our videos and podcasts at ama-assn.org/podcasts. Again, thanks for joining us. Please take care.


Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed in this video are those of the participants and/or do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the AMA.

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