Robin Williams’ untimely death has many of us thinking about how and why something like this happens, particularly because depression and death by suicide continue to affect so many.

The only sure thing that can be said about depression is that there are no easy or quick fixes, but I suggest the arts used in a therapeutic capacity can and should be an important piece of a holistic approach to care.

Broadly defined, art therapy taps into a person’s creative side and uses artistic expression to develop physical and emotional health. By expressing ourselves artistically, we are able to increase self-awareness, self-esteem and become more productive. These qualities often lend themselves to an overall more peaceful state.

Bismarck-based creative arts therapist Karen Van Fossan says of this type of therapy, “taking an opportunity to be creative and express creativity is not 100 percent protection against the incredible strain that depression and addiction creates for a person. At the same time, within a larger context of really intentional therapy, creative art therapy can support people to get in touch with their deep hurts and find a new pathway out of them.”

Van Fossan is a specialist in dance and movement therapy and works with patients in a variety of hospitals and centers around the area. While she works primarily with children and adolescents, she notes that art therapy is often also very effective with adults.

But what can art therapy do that typical therapy can’t?

“Basically the reason that creative art therapy works is that we experience trauma and pain in many ways, some of which are not easily accessed verbally,” Van Fossan says.

Art allows people to tap into deep pain and also the deep capacity to heal in a way that is not always possible simply by talking.

An example of how creative art therapy can assist comes through work that Van Fossan does with teenagers in a group setting. Typically, the group will choose to create a drama or a play together. She believes that through this creative endeavor, the inner capacity to heal is given an opportunity to shine. Suddenly, people will collaborate, they will take risks and they will express themselves.

“What I think is happening is that they are using their imagination to create another way of being, to create joy and have opportunities for courage and to practice creating this in the future,” she says. “Even being able to access joy in this community is another way for their brains and their bodies in general to process and to learn how to exist. It’s another pathway towards joy.”

Creating art that accesses pain or depression allows people to take that pain and begin to move it physically out of their bodies through movement, painting, acting, dancing or other forms of artistic expression.

In the case of Williams, it’s easy to think that because his whole professional life was about making art, he should have been able to find a way to cope with his depression and pain, but that clearly speaks to the important nature of valuing the combined effects of the arts and therapy. But if the arts assist in alleviating pain and depression, why not just sign up for a class in a creative area you are interested in?

For Van Fossan, the difference is quite clear.

“Being in a dance class can be very therapeutic, and dance classes can be taught in ways that help people build self-esteem and help people have a sense of community and connection.”

While a dance class more than likely has the goal to perform in a recital or a competition, dance therapy hopes to unlock the internal pain and trauma through the process of movement to assist the patient in moving beyond it, Van Fossan says. It’s more about the process than the product

One of the universally accepted truths of the arts is that they have the power to elevate our spirits and transcend our realities. An amazing play or concert can take us out of our humdrum lives; a piece of art can transport us to another time and place.

For people suffering with depression, trauma and a host of other mental illnesses, creative art therapy can reach inside, help unlock the pain and bring about a fuller sense of self.

Creative art therapy won’t eradicate depression, but using the arts to help in the coping and healing process will hopefully mean we have fewer stories of people gone too soon.

Dayna Del Val, executive director of The Arts Partnership, writes a monthly column for Variety. For more information on the arts, go to http://theartspartnership.net.

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