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  • Writer's pictureMandy Noa

Intersection of Arts + Mental Health



Imagination isn’t simply a word reserved for childhood, but a guide for interpreting the world. Our imagination shapes our decisions. The media we consume, our hobbies, spiritual practices, and communities all influence our imagination. In Creativity, Matthew Fox calls imagination, “integral to our sustainability…our survival mechanisms… [and] the essence of who we are.” Consider Walter Breuggemann’s ideas on “The Prophet,” or one who pushes the status-quo:

The prophet engages in futuring fantasy. The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing.


Imagination is essential. Creating a world (and a self) flexible to change, willing to challenge norms, requires imagination.


Sometimes, our imaginations need repair. Art Therapist Cathi Malchiodi said, “Helping [ individuals ] discover just what forms of expression are self-regulating and restorative is where the development of reparative imagination begins. It is the starting place to replace distressful memories and body sensations with the imagination of new, and hopefully, healing narratives.” The arts heal. Creative expression is a playground for processing our experiences and identity. In Paradoxes of Play, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi mused that, “the evolutionary existence of play is not that it maintains an already existing reality, but that it provides alternatives to it.” How powerful this is for anyone who has experienced trauma or adversity!


Our kids [and teens] are not okay. The data is sobering. The number of youth experiencing suicidality, anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders is on the rise. Understandably so, they feel disconnected and stretched thin. The brain–the sections that support values, prioritization, organization, and decision-making–aren’t even fully developed until age 26. Our most vulnerable communities need more resources. Educational and community agencies have been called to action, and with this understanding of imagination, so have our arts organizations.


The intersection of arts and wellbeing is one Paint Love truly believes in. Paint Love is a non-profit organization that provides extraordinary arts programming to empower youth and strengthen communities. Since 2014, we have served over 19,000 youth through partnerships with over 100 Metro Atlanta educational and nonprofit agencies. Our art programming extends the conversation beyond the medium into mental health. Many stories and experiences show up in the art room. Through intentional facilitation, our programming designs a safe space for creating– a sometimes vulnerable experience. Paint Love’s Trauma-Informed Arts Model is present at all of their programs – from murals to residencies to one-time workshops. The model’s five-part movement was designed through research and expertise. Every program begins with “Regulate,” or an opportunity to connect with self, and ends with “Share,” an opportunity to connect with others.

Creating not only engages our parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) and releases dopamine, but also stimulates our vagal nerve, the long nerve that connects our heart, brain, and major organs. This stimulation cues our “flow state,” or as Headspace describes it, “that sense of fluidity between your body and mind, where you are totally absorbed by and deeply focused on something, beyond the point of distraction.” Mental health clinicians call the arts a “bottom-up” approach because of its somatic benefits and sensory-engagement. The rhythm of drumming and dancing or the repetitive movement of knitting is incredibly restorative. But, science wasn’t the first to deem this true. International and ancient practices of healing typically involve the arts. Cultures today, your culture, likely incorporates the arts in celebration and change, life and death.


Paint Love has data to prove the depth of this intersection. After programs, youth report positive changes in emotional health and deeper connections to peers. Partners report significant benefits in integrating the arts into their youth-serving organizations. When asked why art is essential, one summer camp attendee stated that the arts provide him stability in chaos.


Paint Love is a steward of the collective imagination. Their advocacy for the arts, alongside mental health, orients imaginations to healing and hope. Action Steps: To support your own imaginative wellbeing, create a regular practice of play and creating. Notice your body moving into a flow state during your favorite activities.

Follow @paintlove or visit www.paintlove.org for additional resources

Books + Articles Cited: The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Breuggemann

Creativity by Matthew Fox

Author Bio:

Mandy Noa is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Program Director for Paint Love. Mandy has experience working as a School Social Worker for Cobb County School District and is a Registered Play Therapist under the supervision of Amber Harris. Mandy is passionate about creative expression and healing and has presented on the topic locally and internationally.

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