How Art Therapy Aids My Recovery From Mental Illness

As a person with a mental illness disability, my diagnosis being schizoaffective disorder, I have been hospitalized several times on inpatient units.  Length of stay ranged from two weeks to three months, where I had to live on units with only a couple of hallways to call home.  Some units permitted fifteen-minute outdoor breaks once or twice daily, while other units were completely locked down.  Living on a unit comprises of much idle time, where you sit around doing very little other than eating meals and attending one or two groups daily.

In this setting, activities like art therapy become incredibly important in encouraging mental wellness and recovery.  Unfortunately, art therapy is typically bare bones, where non-art therapists put out some blank computer paper, crayons, and markers out for drawing, perhaps a tray of plastic beads and some elastic for jewelry.  Creating something from these supplies is certainly possible, but the therapeutic aspect is lacking.  Overall, art is considered auxiliary in facilitating recovery, with sessions only held once or twice weekly.

By far, the best art therapy I encountered was at NYU Langone Medical Center.  They took art therapy very seriously, scheduling two sessions per day from Tuesdays through Fridays, with three sessions on Saturdays.  The art therapist was a legitimate artist, and an inspired person who put much care into each session.  For one group, she gave us each a black piece of paper with a circle drawn on it, and we all drew mandalas that represented our current feelings, pasts and/or hopes for recovery.  For another session, she gave us blue photo paper and a slew of images printed on clear plastic, where we created images that we placed in the sunlight to develop.  Another time, she had us create images with colored tissue paper, which we affixed with brushes and Mod Podge, even crinkling the paper to create three-dimensional images.

Artworks by Neesa Sunar

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My first hospitalization at NYU was in 2011, when I was admitted for having a psychotic break.  Likely due to mania, I packed my schedule with so many obligations that crisis was inevitable.  I taught music classes at a private school in Brooklyn four days a week near-full time, and then attended music education college classes in the evenings twice weekly.  I also had ten private violin students that I taught weekly.  Halfway through the school year, I became convinced I was the reincarnation of Beethoven and could not continue with these obligations.

By the time I got to the ER, I realized how tired my bones were.  Going to art therapy revived my spirits, allowing me to rest and introspect.  Each work of art I created was a triumph, representing my dedication to recovery.  In my room at the hospital, I taped my pictures to the walls to make a little art gallery, helping to keep my spirits uplifted.

My second hospitalization at NYU was in 2012, and my circumstances were completely different than just a year before.  In order to cure myself from mental illness, I joined a radical conservative Christian church, studying the bible as an inerrant document.  I attended church thrice weekly, and also evangelized by handing out gospel tracts in the street to try and convert people.  After six months of this lifestyle, I started thinking I was Beethoven again, so I went back to NYU to recover.

I remember the first art therapy session I had during my second visit to NYU.   Filled with fear that I would be struck down dead by God for leaving that church, I grabbed a set of oil pastels and flipped through a magazine to draw a portrait.  As I drew the woman’s face onto the paper, the oil pastel in my hand took on a mind of its own, and it felt as if the picture were emerging in front of me.  In vivid color, her face had a life of its own, the facial expression acting as an extension of the complex feelings I experienced within.  I became overcome with tears, realizing that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever drawn.  I never thought myself to be an artist, yet this picture proved otherwise.

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For the days that followed, I drew many more compelling pictures.  Unfortunately, as my medication regimen changed, my artistic abilities diminished, and I was only able to draw stick figures after two weeks.  Although I was emotionally stable again, I felt flat and uncreative.  Indeed, many people complain about this very thing, how medications diminish one’s ability to access the muse.

Following that hospitalization in 2012, my condition worsened profoundly, until I became convinced that I was the Antichrist.  At the end of 2012 into the next year, I was hospitalized for three months (not at NYU).  Fortunately during that time, I was put on an excellent combination of medications that not only rehabilitated me perfectly, but still allow me to access my creativity. 

I now express myself mostly through writing poetry, essays and fiction, although I can still draw a nice portrait with oil pastels.  My favorite form of visual art is now collage.  Wherever I go, I look for books with eclectic images that I can cut up to create unique pictures.  I also send and receive postcards from around the world, and I use these as little backdrops to then paste images onto.  Making a collage is a highly intuitive process.  I will flip through books until my eye hits something, and then I cut it out without considering where it will go.  I might paste it onto something else right away, or I’ll wait.  Eventually, an image forms where there is a complex message conveyed through unrelated juxtaposed images.

The walls of my bedroom are packed with art that I have created over the years.  There are my oil pastel portraits, the ones from the hospital, and also collages.  There are also little found objects that I have purchased at yard sales, or else randomly found elsewhere.  The busyness on my walls inspires me, in the same way that I was inspired by my little art gallery in the hospital.  Each picture and item has its own story, so I see my wall as a representation of the journey of my life.

The beauty of art therapy is that it is therapeutic.  It does not matter if one feels they are a “bad artist.”  Instead, the process of creation is the primary purpose, where the end result is not always important.  Even the simplest of drawings can convey powerful messages.  Based on my personal experiences, I highly recommend artistic expression as a way to prompt introspection.  As one creates art genuinely, a person can learn new things about themself which would otherwise remain unknown.  With self-knowledge, comes healing.

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About the Author:

Neesa Sunar is a mental health advocate who resides in Queens, NYC. She is employed at a housing agency that provides housing to people with mental illness disabiltiies, working as a peer specialist. As a peer, she publicly discloses her own experiences with having schizoaffective disorder and anxiety, so as to empower and empathize with those she works with. She is also a student at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, and is expected to graduate in December 2019. Neesa advocates for the mental health cause online. She is the founder and head admin of a mental health discussion/support group on Facebook, called "What is Wellness? A Mental Health Discussion Group," with membership totaling over 2,000. She is also a freelance writer who has been published on many sites, including VICE, The Establishment, Ravishly and Huffington Post.

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