Art Activities that Support Mental Health

By Christina Marrero, ATR, LPC

In this blog post, I use the words neurodiversity and neurological differences to refer to individuals with neurological functioning that differs from the majority population (e.g. austim, ADHD). On my website's blog, you can find a separate post explaining my choice to use the word neurodiversity.

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If you are a person with a neurological difference, or a close family member, simply getting through a routine day can take a great toll on well-being. There is the fatigue that comes from an endless series of appointments. The anxiety from hearing from doctors and teachers about possible diagnoses, probable outcomes, and milestones not met. There may be shame related to underperformance (academic, social, or other), “inappropriate” behaviors (which are often different ways of reacting to stress and overwhelm), and unusual interests. Depression may occur from a prolonged sense of isolation. Then there is the difficulty of exposure to others who may not understand your needs or may be downright hostile about them.  

While navigating through the storm of your “average” day in a world designed for the neurotypical individual, it is important to remain mindful of the needs of yourself or your children as a neurologically different person. For some, this means obtaining additional sensory stimulation after suppressing these needs all day at school or work. For others, it’s sensory minimizing: think of a dimly lit room with noise-canceling headphones. Socialization in a safe way contributes to an overall sense of wellbeing. For example, finding a community to engage with that makes you feel proud of who you are as a neurodivergent individual. Staying connected to your tribe that is interested in the same things as you helps you appreciate new aspects of your interests and grow.

As an art therapist, I am passionate about the use of art and art-related materials to increase personal well-being. Times when you/your child are transitioning from one activity to another can be opportunities to use these processes and materials to break up the day, release pent-up energy/meet suppressed needs, and encourage creativity. Below is a list of activities/art processes which can be used to ease transitions and reduce stress. These art processes are not technically art therapy as they do not involve an art therapist, but they are still valuable experiences which support mental health.

Start an art journal

After starting, set aside 20 minutes a day to work in the journal, maybe after a difficult class/workday or before starting an intimidating project. An art journal can be freeform (you make it your own), or you can buy one with prompts (like this one with short one-word prompts) or this one which celebrates the weirdness in all of us. 

Do artwork with a friend during a break

Start a drawing and have a friend finish it, or make a collage together about your favorite things. Give your character design to someone else so they can add color, etc.

Set up a sensory/art corner

Have a dedicated space at home which has your favorite sensory objects/art materials. It should be easy to access, easy to clean, and have lots of things you find satisfying to fidget and create with, such as thinking putty, shag fabric remnants, stress balls, egg crayons, qwik stix, etc.

Other ideas for self-care:

  • Spend time outside to engage other senses such as smell and sound
  • For parents, allow yourself to get lost in your child’s interests for a few minutes. This builds connection and validates your child’s sense of self.
  • Sit in quiet contemplation/practice mindfully being in the present
  • Watch a YouTube tutorial and learn a new technique
  • Take a few minutes to think about what you are grateful for

Happy Mental Health Awareness Month, and take good care!