Another Reason to Save the Arts in Schools
What do these familiar names have in common?
Sylvia Plath. Kurt Cobain. Ernest Hemingway. Ludwig van Beethoven.
Yes, they were all famous artists - a poet, musician, author, and composer - who each contributed to the arts and to the culture of creativity. But there's another way these people were similar. They each suffered from depression or a related mental illness.
We are all familiar with the idea that artists and mood disorders seem to coincide. Some of this notion is anecdotal and should not be used to perpetuate stereotypes. Yet according to Laura Young, principal researcher of a new study about depression and the arts, there is a growing body of research showing that there really is a link between interest in the arts and risk for depressive disorders. The question we need to answer focuses on the nature of that link. In other words, do the arts cause depression, or are depressed people more drawn to the arts?
Young set out to explore this relationship further with her research colleagues at Boston College by looking at the association between depression and participation in the arts in adolescents.
I like Young's reasoning for choosing this age group. She says that younger children may be enrolled in arts activities by the urging of their parents; on the other hand, adolescents are more likely to be participating by choice. An added bonus is that by studying adolescents, we may learn more about how to identify and treat depression at an earlier age, which could enhance wellness in adulthood and throughout life.
In the study, 2,482 adolescents (15- and 16-year-olds) were asked whether they experienced depressive symptoms such as sadness, decreased appetite, problems concentrating, and low energy. These finding were then analyzed in light of whether the students participated in afterschool arts programs.
The researchers found that adolescents who were involved in the arts were more likely to be depressed, and that this finding held for both genders. Interestingly, adolescents participating in sports were less likely to be depressed unless they were also enrolled in arts programs.
While the study can only indicate an association between arts participation and depression (and not whether one causes the other), Young suggests that school arts programs could be beneficial to adolescents experiencing depression. In an interview for the Chicago Tribune, Young indicated that arts activities can provide a safe place to express or reflect on difficult emotions. Additionally, when adolescents are emotionally distracted, the arts can provide a meaningful, targeted focus.
If this is true, it bolsters the argument to continue funding arts programs in our nation's schools. Not only do the arts complete a well-rounded education; they may also play a key role in the mental health of our developing youth.
Young, L. N., Winner, E., & Cordes, S. (2012). Heightened incidence of depressive symptoms in adolescents involved in the arts. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, Advance Online Publication, doi: 10.1037/a0030468