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We’ve all witnessed the impacts of poverty: homelessness, hunger, physical and mental illness, social exclusion, addiction – the list could go on. What’s less visible is the stress and the trauma that both accompanies and exacerbates all of these factors. How can we improve well-being for those who are low- or no-income? For those who are constantly mitigating traumas like these, past or present?
A recent study investigated the effects of visual art-making and demonstrated a significant decrease in the cortisol levels of participants after just 45 minutes of creative time. Commonly known as the “stress hormone,” cortisol takes a major toll on health – intensifying or leading to conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, low immune function, and more. Doctors in the UK are now prescribing the arts for patients struggling with everything from mental health issues to dementia to social isolation, and have seen a marked difference in recovery.
This way of thinking and “social prescribing” has not yet reached the United States in a pervasive way – our system mostly limits access to art classes and cultural events to those who are affluent. But what if art could extend beyond privilege to reach those who are most vulnerable and have the least access – those in recovery from the stressors of poverty?
One organization, Path with Art, is taking revolutionary steps in providing access to the transformative power of arts education for low-to-no income adults in recovery from homelessness, trauma, abuse, mental and physical health issues, and more.
Before engaging with the program, participants report feeling invisible, marginalized, shamed, and disrespected by society. Through creative expression in a safe and respectful community, students learn, or re-learn, to trust themselves and others, develop new skills and habits, and heal.
“After I got out of the psych ward, all I did was go into my room and lock the door,” says long-time Path with Art student, Carol Ann Hiller. “I used to say, ‘I’m surviving.’ And a friend would tell me, ‘There’s more to life than surviving.’ [I found] writing poetry for eight weeks was better than twenty years of psychiatry.”
Participation in creative activities has the potential to provide a sense of purpose, social relationships, community integration, and healing, for those who are so often deprived of these necessities because they are seen as privileges. Students at Path with Art are living proof that creative expression can make a difference.
“The daily lives of people living in homelessness, dealing with trauma, or coping with mental or physical health issues, are often dictated by their challenges rather than by their potential,” says Path with Art Executive Director Holly Jacobson. “Arts engagement changes that narrative. It allows people the space to create, explore, and problem solve, resulting in a sense of accomplishment. Whether through music, painting, or poetry, the effects of art-making in a safe environment can be powerfully transformative and stabilizing.”