Art therapy considered effective for treating depression

A new study, led by Christina Blomdahl, Ph.D. at the University of Gothenburg, found art therapy may have significant therapeutic effects for those suffering from major depression.

Dr. Blomdahl began by developing a manual-based art therapy programme for 43 patients with severe or moderate depression, and a control group of 36 patients with depression, to better understand treatment effects and patient experiences. All patients were severely impaired to the point that they couldn’t work.

The four specific aims of the research were:

  1. To explore and describe how art therapy works in relation to therapeutic factors, clinical application, and circumstances in the experimental situation, for patients with depression.
  2. To explore what experts in the field of art therapy consider to be the main aspects of treatment for patients with depression in clinical practice.
  3. To investigate the effects of manual-based Phenomenological Art Therapy in addition to treatment as usual (PATd/TAU) compared with only treatment as usual (TAU) for patients diagnosed with moderate to severe depression.
  4. To describe and explore the significance of manual-based Phenomenological Art Therapy as experienced by patients diagnosed with moderate to severe depression.

Aside from art therapy, participants were given cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, physical therapy, along with a selection of psychotropic drugs.

During art therapy, conducted as part of a predetermined setup, participants began with relaxation exercises, in which thereafter, crayons and watercolors were handed out.

“They followed the manual I had created in order to ensure that it was scientific, but although everyone was given the same theme to go on the patients responded very differently to the exercises.

“The materials were simple, allowing people to doodle and feel free to express themselves the way they wanted to, and then they would talk about the picture and its significance to the participant,” Dr. Blomdahl noted.

“After ten hour-long treatment sessions, the patients had improved on an average of almost five steps on a rating scale used for depression.”

The manual-based Phenomenological Art Therapy for patients with depression (PATd) and Treatment As Usual (TAU) utilized in the study demonstrated considerable therapeutic results.

“Even the people who did not experience any direct benefit from the treatment had shown improvement. Painting pictures based on themes and discussing the pictures with the therapist promotes self-reflection and brain stimulation that takes place outside of the conscious mind,” Dr. Blomdahl stated.

“The conclusion is that it was the art therapy that facilitated their improvement.”

The drastic improvement in symptoms of depression from art therapy, which include self-esteem, was more than enough for participants to return to work, the results concluded.