clay art therapy : an alternative mental health care intervention

As World Mental Health Day on October 10 approaches, we are reminded once more of the growing impact of mental health disorders on our communities and the urgent need for a bold and sustainable global response. While its terms continue to be contested, the truth of mental health as a disability must be faced: it is predicted that by 2030, depression ‘will be the leading cause of disease burden globally,’ [] while sufferers of a variety of mental disorders continue to be systematically stigmatized. It is only through the collective efforts of policy-makers, social, educational and healthcare institutions that an integrative, comprehensive and just response can be forged.

Leading up to this year’s World Mental Health Day, this post and the next will take a closer look at art therapy, and clay therapy in particular, to offer some reflections on its contribution towards this global project. In our collective attempt to advocate for an intersectional, policy-driven mental health care system, what can art therapy and its non-conventional spaces offer as an alternative form of healthcare? What reverberations can an individual’s intimate, healing encounter with clay produce in their own life and upon society?

In a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in April this year, Hong Kong-based art psychotherapist and potter, Joshua K.M. Nan, spearheaded a project to quantitatively measure the effects of clay art therapy (CAT) on outpatients suffering from major depressive disorder (MDD) []. Patients were exposed to a sequence of clay art techniques ranging from kneading, building pinch pots, glazing, firing, and creating figurative ceramic sculptures, led by a professional art therapist. Quantitative measures of aspects of their emotional regulation were made, with encouraging results: patients taking CAT were found to have lower levels of depression, along with ‘improved daily functioning, general mental health, and holistic Body-Mind-Spirit well-being,’ as compared to a control group exposed to traditional crafts led by social workers.

Given the many inhibitions patients of MDD face in generating positive memories and emotions, as well as in articulating them, Nan suggests that the symbolic potential of clay work allows the patients’ sculptures to be ‘associated with their significant life experiences, loved ones, or embodied self-representation.’ Molded into a functional vessel or a figure, clay becomes a medium through which inchoate emotions can be expressed in a communicable and perhaps positive form, offering a means of identity formation with the pleasure of its physical-sensual immediacy.

The individual’s healing is a transformation on a personal scale, and one whose movements and products admittedly elude even the most rigorous of scientific measuring. And yet, this very quality makes this publication part of an important movement towards enriching conventional strategies in mental health care. In turning to the arts, and to the haptic modality of clay, CAT imagines an alternative to the dominance of pharmacological mental health interventions along with the burden of their costs and side effects. It re-casts the patient as more than a passive recipient of aid, but as a creative agent of their healing, a producer of enduring, physical objects that last beyond the therapeutic process.

It is this belief in the potential of art to nurture the healing process of individuals facing issues with mental health that motivates the work of Center Pottery. It is also stirred by an enduring faith that even small social enterprises have a significant role to play in enriching the landscape of mental health care, starting from our own backyard.



Additional note:

Complement Nan’s study with yet another salient set of statistics in the Health and Wellbeing Inquiry Report by the All-Party parliamentary Group on Arts in the UK, released in July []. For example, an arts-on-prescription project, in which individuals experiencing psychological or physical distress were prescribed engagements with the arts, yielded a 27% reduction in hospital admission and 37% drop in GP consultation, approximately translating into savings of 216 pounds per person. This, among other statistics, tends to suggest that far from a supplementary role to conventional treatments, art interventions are increasingly recognized as having a potential to produce measurable health benefits in its clients, an effect that undoubtedly yields economic benefits as well.