OPINION: Need a mental health boost? Make art

Sarah Nisbett wrote "Drawn on the Way" to help people connect with the world around them through art. 
Photo by Eian Kantor

Combined ShapeCaption
Sarah Nisbett wrote "Drawn on the Way" to help people connect with the world around them through art. Photo by Eian Kantor

Ten years ago, tired of staring at a screen while commuting to work on the train, Sarah Nisbett reached into her purse and pulled out a sketch pad and pen and looked around for inspiration. She wasn’t a trained artist. She was an opera singer and an avowed perfectionist.

She knew she would make mistakes creating artwork with a pen while riding the rumbling subway with its many starts and stops, and she knew she needed to learn how to embrace the experience.

“Working in pen mirrors the choices we have to make in life,” Nisbett said. “You either decide you can work with your mistakes or you decide you can turn the page and start over.”

During the height of the pandemic, when so many people were isolated at home, almost everyone seemed to want a do-over.

Surveys have shown an increase in the number of adults and children reporting symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and sleeplessness during the pandemic.

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Nisbett knew the one thing socially isolated people really wanted during the pandemic was a connection — and not only to one another. “A lot of us turned to virtual space for connection but in many ways those places are very hollow. They give you something for the moment, but it is not permanent and grounded in the real world.”

Drawing, particularly observational drawing, pulls you into the real world in a very grounding way, she said. “I think there is powerful medicine in that.”

Combined ShapeCaption
Sarah Nisbett wrote "Drawn on the Way" as a guide and inspiration to help people connect with the world around them. Image Credit: Quarry Books.

Credit: Quarry books

Sarah Nisbett wrote "Drawn on the Way" as a guide and inspiration to help people connect with the world around them. Image Credit: Quarry Books.

Credit: Quarry books

Combined ShapeCaption
Sarah Nisbett wrote "Drawn on the Way" as a guide and inspiration to help people connect with the world around them. Image Credit: Quarry Books.

Credit: Quarry books

Credit: Quarry books

Art therapists and other mental health professionals in metro Atlanta have seen an increase in the need for mental health services that support diverse communities, particularly since the pandemic, according to the Georgia Art Therapy Association.

Making art is soothing, said Jennifer Nestor-Cardwell, an art therapist and licensed professional counselor in Roswell. “It is really healing … especially when there aren’t words for things because you are not sure what to say or the words are too scary to say,” she said.

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Depending on the topic, art works on such a deep level that sometimes you can just lean in and let the art do the work, she said. “That is the gift of art therapy, especially for kids and teens during the years when they might not want to talk about something, but they do want to be in a healing space,” Nestor-Cardwell said.

In March 2020, artist Wendy MacNaughton began streaming art sessions for kids on Instagram live. She emphasized the importance of making mistakes, avoiding perfectionism and using the moment to be focused and engaged.

Initially, her plan had been to create public drawing stations in parks and bus stops around San Francisco, to help residents slow down, look at and draw one another, according to a recent profile in New York magazine. When the pandemic happened, MacNaughton turned to the virtual world and invited people to draw with her. Her first invitation attracted 12,000 children with whom she drew a dog.

DrawTogether, the 30-minute sessions that spread across three and a half months, eventually turned into a summer camp and a school curriculum.

“There is something very grounding about becoming deeply engaged with your own world and this is what a lot of us need right now,” Nisbett said. So she wrote a book for people who don’t think they can’t draw.

“Drawn on the Way” (Quarry, $23) offers a mix of instruction and inspiration to help even the busiest adults unwind and connect by indulging their creativity for a just few minutes a day. Nisbett suggests carrying around a sketch pad and pen to invite more curiosity about the world.

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Real Life with Nedra Rhone introduces Real Life Relationships, a monthly reader-contributed essay that explores the many ways in which we are connected and the attendant emotions — happiness, sadness, fear and anger — those connections can bring into our lives. Interested in contributing? Email nedra.rhone@ajc.com with the subject line “Real Life Relationships.” Here are some recent essays from Real Life Relationships that you may enjoy:

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I tried this recently when my daughter and I took a trip to the West Coast for spring break. We took sketch pads along and pulled them out on a tour of the Grand Canyon and while lounging at our hotel.

When I look at those drawings, I am transported back to that carefree vacation — the first we’d taken in years.

It gives me the feeling that while things may not be entirely normal, I can always give my brain a break, tap into my creativity and indulge my senses.

If we let go of the need for perfection, these moments can lead to deeply encoded memories, Nisbett said.

We can experience reduced stress and a rush of endorphins. Those are benefits that feel like the perfect salve for the times.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.

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