Art as an Expression of Mental Health

I’ve loved making art for as long as I can remember. I used to draw the same picture of a dog on different pieces of paper and leave them scattered around the house as a not-so-subtle hint to my parents that their 5-year-old really wanted a puppy. I like to draw images that I want to remember; memories of pleasant things and places. But I also use art as an expression of mental health.

self portrait

Feelings are hard to articulate, but colors, shapes, and textures can carry meaning without the structural constraints of sentences. Creating an image can be a cathartic way to express feelings that also lets other people in on the experience. When I don’t know exactly what to make but I have an urge to make something, I start with choosing materials and just let my hand move freely. Something usually takes shape, but even if it doesn’t, I can always just scrap it and start over.

Part of what I love about art as a way to express mental health is that everyone can interpret it in their own way. As the artist, there’s something that it means to you, but you don’t even have to share that meaning with the people who see your art. And even if you do share it, people will still have an immediate reaction based on their own life circumstances and interpretation style.

The therapist I saw in college believed that there were no accidents in art, and would analyze my sketchbook while sitting next to me. While I’m sure there are some elements of my art that come from my subconscious, I don’t usually see the “accidental” parts of my art as meaningful.

That said, there were always parts of my art that my therapist pointed out as meaningful that I hadn’t noticed before. I could always come away with a better understanding of myself, or at least something new to think about. For example, the window mechanism in this piece is very detailed.


She suggested that detail might be an indicator that there was some hope of freedom or escape from the thoughts in the drawing. Whether that’s something that ended up in the drawing because some part of me believed there was hope, I’m not sure. But I can certainly take that sense of hope away from it, into my normal life. 

Art about mental health is not just an excellent way to express feelings, but it also starts a conversation. It can make people feel less alone in their experience, and it can help your loved ones understand your symptoms and how you feel. Sometimes, it even helps me understand where I’m at in regards to my own outlook. Sometimes a piece of art will take me by surprise at its dark overtones when I thought I was feeling ok. Other times, I’m pleasantly surprised to find that drawing a whimsical picture is exactly what I want to do.


If you’re interested, you can follow my art Instagram @lumpdates

Why I Sometimes Call Self-Care “Corporeal Maintenance”

Sometimes I wish someone would just roll me into the literal body shop and get me a self-care tune-up. Alas, it doesn’t work that way.

I’ve stopped using the term “self-care” to describe a lot of the things I do for myself. Hear me out, though. It’s not because there’s anything wrong with calling it self-care; it’s just that a lot of self-care tasks are not as flowery and gentle as the term implies. Sometimes you have to buckle up and make that phone call you’ve been avoiding so that your dentist doesn’t think you dropped off the face of the planet. (And so that you can get your teeth cleaned, I guess.)

I’ve found that reframing some self-care tasks as “corporeal maintenance” helps me tackle them with less procrastination. Something about approaching these tasks as simply maintenance and upkeep feels less daunting.
Here are some examples:

“Oh, my ‘check hydration tank’ light is on. Better go drink some water.”
“Didn’t I just go grocery shopping, like…oh, yeah, I guess it’s been a while. I should probably get some fuel for this week.”

If I call it “self-care,” I’m likely to not do it – either because I don’t care, or because I don’t feel worthy of being cared for. But, if you want to keep driving to the things you do care about, you have to get the oil changed every once in a while.

There’s a lot of talk about self-care these days; some criticize it and some embrace it whole-heartedly. There tends to be an atmosphere of self-indulgence when we discuss it; as if every act of caring for ourselves is rooted in all-encompassing positivity. And yes, self-care can be self-indulgent and rooted in self-love. Those things are necessary. But self-care is also doing the things that aren’t very fun but are kind of non-negotiable when it comes to being healthy.

It may very well be the case that you do complete these tasks out of self-love, and I think that’s great. In fact, that seems like a wonderful goal to work towards. But if you’re not there yet, and calling those unpleasant/boring tasks “self-care” feels insincere, go ahead and call them something else. Whatever floats your goat.


Your Brain