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The Connection Between Art and Mental Health and Healing in Public Schools

The Connection Between Art and Mental Health and Healing in Public Schools

Written by:
Rachel Chapman
May 16, 2022

We are in the midst of a mental health crisis among young people. Anxiety and depression have doubled since the start of the pandemic. In the U.S., over 2.5 million youth suffer from severe depression, 60% of which don’t receive any treatment. Within Chicago Public Schools, it’s not uncommon for mental health resources to be spread thin. Even in schools which do meet the recommended 1:250 ratio of counselors to students, it’s usually not enough to give every student access to the support they may need.

With rates of homicide and violent crime continuing to rise in Chicago, CPS students may bear witness to traumatic events that severely impact their ability to function and learn. School is often a safe escape from these stressors, making art programs essential to their well-being. Art making reduces stress hormone levels and can help reshape and organize the brain to heal from trauma. Art reminds us that we can still create beautiful things in uncertain times, and often it’s just the escape that both students and teachers need.

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Self Expression

Words can’t always perfectly describe our feelings and experiences. Bringing art into the classroom creates a space for students to experiment with endless possibilities to communicate their feelings without the discomfort or confusion that can come with trying to express themselves verbally. As students learn to better represent their ideas through their art, they also build up a visual timeline of their progress.

Being exposed to art within public schools gives students the external motivation to address their emotions through a healthy outlet. When going through difficult situations or hardships, it can be a struggle to find the personal motivation to do things purely for our own enjoyment. In 2020, I lost my home, multiple family members, and the future seemed completely uncertain. On my own, I wouldn’t have had the motivation to create any art, but having a class with assignments and projects gave me the incentive to address the struggles I was facing. It gave me the ability to express my emotions without having to share every detail of what I was going through. Working on projects for my art classes became my temporary escape from the real world. 

Creating something from our difficulties provides a great sense of fulfillment. Even learning about other artists and the challenges they’ve faced can be a source of inspiration that helps us feel less alone.

 

A Sense of Control

There’s no getting around it: we’re living in very distressing times. We and the people we know have experienced much loss, whether it be of loved ones, jobs, or homes. Between everchanging COVID guidelines, readjusting to in-person learning, and now a war, it often feels like the state of our lives is completely out of our hands. Without a sense of control, students may experience heightened anxiety that makes it difficult to prioritize their education. Education must be relevant to the daily lives of students in order to keep them engaged. Art reaches students in a way that allows them to advocate for their emotions, beliefs, and ideas in a world where they otherwise may feel like they don’t have a voice. Art gives students the ability to make an impact.

We may not be able to control every factor of our lives, but art does give us control over what we put out into the world. The artmaking process is entirely up to each individual and allows them to engage in a task that’s completely dependent on their decisions. The classroom is an incredibly important space where students can focus on the task in front of them and temporarily disconnect from the chaos of the world. It provides them with a sense of stability on otherwise unstable ground, and helps them to heal from the past while adapting to the present.

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Building a Community

Having a group of peers with a common goal or interest can be a great way to learn and stay motivated, but quite often it’s challenging to find. One of the biggest advantages to having art programs within schools is the community of fellow artists that it creates. Within the arts and any profession for that matter, having a supportive group is key to giving us the drive to continue pursuing our passions, and schools are the first place that we begin building connections.

Communities allow students to bounce ideas off of each other and receive helpful feedback and differing perspectives. Seeing how others represent their experiences through art can help them feel less alone in their own struggles. This process of listening to and learning from others can also play a key role in social development. Art classes provide ample opportunity for students to have discussions and make friends while still being productive. School art programs have also been shown to help students develop more compassion and a willingness to help those around them. Art education gives students a support system of peers and teachers who can help lift each other up.

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Making Art Education Accessible

Art heals the mind, and teachers want to make the most of its benefits, but with frequent budget cuts and underfunding of arts programs, finding useful resources isn’t always simple. We believe that every child deserves the same opportunity to receive a well-rounded arts education, which is exactly why IPMM strives to make art programs as accessible as possible to every child, regardless of income or neighborhood. 

CPS has a skewed property tax funding model, which funnels more money to schools in wealthy neighborhoods and less to schools in low-income neighborhoods. This funding model perpetuates the legacy of racial segregation in Chicago and means that low-income children of color are generally the ones getting the short end of the stick. These same communities struggle with other aspects of disinvestment, including higher rates of violent crime, homelessness, and poverty. Art education is critical for all Chicago students, but can be especially helpful for children going through tough times outside of the classroom. 

That’s why IPMM’s model prioritizes teachers and students in our underfunded public schools, breaking down as many barriers as we can to a quality arts education.

Art education doesn’t only improve the well-being of students, it extends to teachers as well! Educators make such a positive impact on the lives of the students they teach, but this task certainly isn’t without its stressors. Check out some of our self-care resources for teachers!

systematic defunding of arts education

Written by:
Rachel Chapman
May 16, 2022

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