Creative expression through art has long been seen as a great way to relieve stress. However, it is not just creating art that can be beneficial to our mental health, but viewing it, too. Alongside oft-cited advice like openly discussing emotions, regularly exercising and maintaining a well-balanced diet, viewing works of art can be highly valuable to our mental wellbeing.

With depression the primary cause of ill-health worldwide and much of the population regularly experiencing high levels of anxiety, it is imperative that we all do what we can to keep our mental health in check. That’s where public art comes in. Rather than having to go out of our way to view art in galleries, public artworks like sculptures and temporary installations bring art, and its stress-relieving effects, right to us. Here’s how public art can make such a difference to our mental health.

Public art can help reduce stress

When we’re stressed, our bodies release a hormone called cortisol. The higher our cortisol levels, the more likely we are to suffer from depression and related mental illness. A University of Westminster study found that subjects’ cortisol levels decreased by a staggering 32% after looking at works of art for just 40 minutes. Under normal circumstances, it would take around five hours for cortisol levels to fall this sharply.

According to neuroscientist Oshin Vartanian, this rapid fall happens because “areas of the brain involved in processing emotion and those that activate our pleasure and reward systems” are engaged when we perceive art.

The clinically-proven benefits of art have inspired many public spaces to take it seriously as a stress-relieving measure. Hospitals have began incorporating public art into their buildings for the benefit of their patients. With an emphasis mostly on uplifting images and scenes of nature, the presence of these artworks in hospital corridors and foyers has also resulted in self-reported improvements to mood and stress levels. Some hospitals have seen artworks reduce anxiety and pain amongst patients.

To help hospitals acquire artworks to display, UK charity Paintings in Hospitals has a collection of around 4,100 museum-quality artworks, featuring pieces from renowned artists like Ian Davenport, Joseph Albers and Gillian Ayres. Medical centres can borrow from this collection to bring all the benefits of public art to their patients.

Public art can bring communities together

Loneliness is one of the most common causes of depression. The feeling that you’re alone, and that there’s no one to talk to, can be a precursor to the stronger feelings of helplessness and sadness that bring about clinical depression. Community public art projects tackle this loneliness head on.

Detroit’s Power House Productions brings together local residents and artists, and helps them to creatively renovate abandoned properties. Since 2009, they have repurposed hundreds of vacant lots throughout the city, and brought people together from all corners of the community, demonstrating the unifying power of public art.

Another public art project with a positive communal impact was the viral Before I Die series from 2017. The project explored our relationship with death by asking the public to finish the sentence “Before I die I want to _____” on chalkboards in 70 cities worldwide. This divulging of longings, anxieties and emotions created the kind of social interaction that can prove highly beneficial to mental health.

Public art can start the mental health conversation

Talking openly about mental health is crucial to ensuring psychological wellbeing, but it’s something people don’t do enough. Public art can remedy this, with projects encouraging us to share our feelings and concerns with one another.

The Big Anxiety festival in Australia does this through immersive art installations and events. The festival provides attendees with a comfortable and open space where they can discuss mental health issues freely without the stigma they would typically face in day-to-day life. One of the projects on show at the latest edition was Awkward Conversations, where attendees could discuss difficult subjects with artists, performers and activists attending the festival. Another featured project was Mood Experiments, which aimed to raise awareness of how different environments can alter our moods.

There are a number of smaller-scale projects with similar aims, such as the Mad Pride Carnival in Hull. The carnival is focused on using creativity to increase awareness and inspire discussion about mental health issues. Ella Dorton, one of the project’s organisers, said in the run-up to the festival: “We want to talk about how mad our world really is, about all the inequality and injustice, greed and violence, and how all this madness so often makes us unwell. With art, music, and storytelling, we want to help people share their highs and lows, their breakdowns and breakthroughs, their struggles and successes.” Events like these show just how important public art can be in helping people break the stigma in society around discussing mental health.

As we’ve seen, public art in its various forms can be hugely effective in helping us maintain our mental wellbeing. By reducing our stress levels, helping us to socialise, and opening up discussions about mental health issues, public art is doesn’t just make the world look better, it helps us feel better too.

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