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Locals using art to improve mental health

As seen on a Sussex Directories Inc site
As seen on a Sussex Directories Inc site

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (KIFI/KIDK) - Dakota Merrill is a local artist who says he’s been creating art for most of his life. He has experience with graphic design, screen printing, glass blowing, music production, wall art, and murals.

“I didn’t really start taking myself serious as an artist until the last few years though,” Merrill said.

Most recently, he is apprenticing to become a tattoo artist at Govannon Studios. And it's helping his mental health.

“I’ve always struggled with anxiety and depression,” Merrill said. “Stress has always been a hard one for me too. I’ve been on a handful of medications over the last few years and stuff but it wasn’t until I started trying to make art more of a career than a hobby that I’ve been able to get off most of my medications and I’m doing a lot better.”

Hailey Reed is a licenced professional counselor and art therapist at Soul Space LLC in Pocatello. Art therapy is anything that uses art within a therapy setting. It includes creating art while talking to a clinician or following a prompt in lieu of talking. Processing the art afterward and tying it into the problems each individual is seeking help for can be extremely therapeutic. It opens the door for reflection and dialogue in ways that can be more beneficial than talk therapy alone.

“The more you can engage that part of your brain, the better I think you’re going to feel,” Reed said. “It’s going to fire different neurons and natural things like dopamine and things like that that are in a lot of depression and anxiety medications. Art naturally excites that part of the brain.”

Studies confirm creating art can reduce stress and anxiety levels in the body. Cortisol is a stress hormone that can be measured through saliva. 

In one study of healthy adults, researchers found cortisol levels dropped significantly 45 minutes after creating a piece of art. Another test found anxiety levels in college students preparing for final exams also significantly decreased after making art. 

Art can be beneficial, no matter your experience or skill level. People tend to feel more relaxed after making art.

“Having an outlet to create and stuff gives me a way to kind of decompress and slows everything else in life down a little bit, gives me something to focus on other than anything that’s negative,” Merrill said.

“Art definitely fires a different part of our brain, and can help us get out of whatever kind of funk we’re in, because you’re not in the stress part of your brain when you’re doing art,” Reed said.

Reed says art helps supplement therapy and allows therapists to dig deeper with clients. 

“You can learn so much more about somebody by looking at their art than maybe you would just sitting across from them asking questions,” Reed said.

Art is a useful tool in helping clients unpack their feelings and turn their problems into progress.

“The more creative you can be, the more you’re going to access the natural resilience inside of you,” Reed said.

Merrill says he generally feels accomplished after creating art. 

“It’s up and down like anything else but it always feels good to create,” Merrill said.

He says when someone really wants to own something that he’s created, it’s a huge boost of self-confidence.

“To create is very brave and I think anytime you go and pay honor to that part of yourself is going to help you out,” Reed said. “I don’t think there’s any time where you’re going to be creative and leave that situation and wish that you hadn’t done that.”

Reed says being creative with children helps to build a stronger relationship with her clients much faster than asking them simply to speak. She says 75 percent of the time, she uses art and creative techniques with her adolescent clients. 

“Art, in a way, can almost tap into our subconscious thoughts and beliefs,” Reed said. “With children, a lot of times, what’s going on with them, they don’t have words for. So the use of art can really draw out of them what’s going on.”

Any kind of art creation in the therapy setting turns into art therapy and clinicians don’t necessarily need to feel like art is a tool they aren’t qualified or trained to use. Reed says some clients open up more to her while they are doing something creative, even crochet or cross stitch, because the side of the brain that manages openness is being engaged.

Reed says she has one client who took the stay-at-home order as an opportunity to become more engaged with their art and now reports feeling more mentally well and stable than they ever have. 

“The only difference was they were creating almost full-time versus just whenever they found the time,” Reed said.

We are all struggling a little more than usual due to the pandemic, but art can be an outlet to process these times in a creative way. When it’s hard to express our thoughts and emotions with words, sometimes art can say it all. It may be a more useful tool now than ever.

“Don’t be afraid to dive into it,” Merrill said. “You don’t have to be a professional artist to gain the benefits that come from creating art.”

Creating art at home involves many different creative techniques and mediums. Experimenting with various artistic projects may be the best way to find which outlet works best for you.

Talking in therapy while creating art may be another added level of emotional processing that can be beneficial.

Reed says finding a therapist who you feel comfortable with is the most important aspect of gaining benefits from mental health treatment. She advises if you feel more comfortable creating art or listening to music, whatever it is you need to do to process your emotions in therapy, don’t stop looking until you find a provider who is a good fit for you. You can visit her website here.

“During this time when we’re all really struggling, anything you can be doing to put yourself out there and to be brave is going to help you feel better,” Reed said. “Try new things. We all have a little bit more time on our hands, and being creative is just a wonderful outlet for people and a natural way to help yourself.”

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Chelsea Briar

Chelsea is a reporter and producer for Local News 8 and KIDK Eyewitness News 3.


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