Art Therapy for Incarcerated Suffering from Mental Illness

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of 2005, more than half (61%) of prison and jail inmates had a mental health problem, the majority of them (24%-40%) suffering from major depressive or mania symptoms. Major depressive disorder is characterized by persistent episodes of depression with loss of pleasure/interest in life, and mania (manic depression/bipolar depression) is when an individual experiences periods of depression followed by periods of intense energy, disconnected thoughts, poor judgement, and inappropriate behaviors (Sheil 2016).

Depending on who’s asking, health care within the prison system is often not adequate enough to provide inmates with the most basic medications and treatments that many free US citizens (those fortunate enough to afford healthcare) have easy access to (Schwartzapfel 2018).

Art therapy offers a less expensive supplement to counseling (as opposed to medication) that allows the prison-industrial complex to continue to cut corners in hopes of still improving the mental health of the incarcerated.

During one of last week’s classes, while doing the Van Gogh case study I became interested in the effect that art may have had in soothing the symptoms of mental illness rather than the effect that mental illness may have had on his art. A pilot study conducted in an all male maximum security prison selected 48 male inmates (referred by the prison’s mental health counselor) to participate in a 4- week long art program (Gussak 2007, p. 446). The effects of the art program were measured twice, once before the program and once upon completion with an assessment called the FEATS. The FEATS was basically a rating guide or a “grading” rubric that would be used to interpret the art being made by the individuals. The specific criterion were as followed: 

  • Prominence of Color
  • Color Fit
  • Implied Energy
  • Space 
  • Integration 
  • Logic 
  • Realism 
  • Problem Solving 
  • Developmental Level 
  • Details 
  • Line Quality 
  • Person
  • Rotation
  • Preservation 

The ratings for each of the different elements were used to “assess the presence” of major depression, bipolar disorder/mania, schizophrenia, and delirium/dementia (Gussak 2007, p.447).  For instance, if a patient’s art scored low for prominence of color, space, realism, and details, a counselor was then able to determine that they were depressed and then gauge how severe the depression was, and then after several weeks of treatment, administer the assessment again to determine if the symptoms of depression had lessened.

Below are examples of how the images would change over the course of the experiment.

At the conclusion of this experiment, the researchers found that seven out of the fourteen criterion used to evaluate the art had improved significantly mirroring in their decrease in depressive symptoms and overall improvement in mood (i.e compliance with staff and interactions with other inmates).

Beyond the effect that art has on mental health, in this case, art has had an effect on the perception of incarcerated individuals. Mental illness, especially in the United States, has gotten stigmatized over the years as something unnatural and that those who suffer from it are less likely to be successful and more likely to engage in violent acts. In  reality, the issue is the fact that many of those suffering do not have access to the medications and other treatment options that would allow them to function how society deems “normal”.

Works Cited

Gussak D. The Effectiveness of Art Therapy in Reducing Depression in Prison Populations. 2007 Aug [accessed 2020 Mar 4]. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/4177/a1191dabf907b1042a6785fe3ef65ad14c60.pdf

James DJ, Glaze LE. Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates. 2006 Dec 14 [accessed 2020 Mar 4]. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/mhppji.pdf

Schwartzapfel B. How Bad is Prison Health Care? Depends on Who’s Watching. The Marshall Project. 2018 Feb 26 [accessed 2020 Mar 5]. https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/02/25/how-bad-is-prison-health-care-depends-on-who-s-watching

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Caroline Maki says:

    This is a super interesting topic that I feel like should be discussed more in modern day; the mental health of those incarcerated. Especially in the United States, a country with a significantly high incarceration rate, we have to consider what we are going to do to prevent people from reentering the prison system. I had never considered how impactful art could be on mental health. I will definitely look more into this topic in the future, and I am excited and hopeful to see more experiments done in regards to this type of treatment!

  2. Victoria Leger says:

    I found this blog post very interesting! I appreciated its topic, you chose to show how art can be used as a therapy and not how mental illness can impact art. I loved how you used the pilot study with the prisoners to show how art can allow to measure the presence of mental illnesses in an individual. In addition, the drawings you show as examples reinforce this idea and gives us a deeper understanding.

  3. Rachael Berkoff says:

    I really enjoyed your blog. Prior to reading about the experiment you mentioned, I never knew that art itself could serve as a diagnostic to detect depression and other mental illnesses. In addition to that, I loved learning about the positive effect that art had in treating the inmates’ mental illnesses.

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