Healing power of art therapy on display at mental health center's new gallery

Fu Rong
A special art facility called "No. 600 Gallery" opens its doors to the public in Shanghai Mental Health Center with its first exhibition "Art Brut: Lines, Colors, Stories."
Fu Rong

Podcast EP11

Healing power of art therapy on display at mental health center's new gallery
Fu Rong / SHINE

Dr Chen Zhimin, who is also the curator, designed the poster and preface for the opening exhibition.

In the corridor of the Rehabilitation Daycare Center at Shanghai Mental Health Center (SMHC), a special art facility called "No. 600 Gallery" opens its doors to the public with its first exhibition "Art Brut: Lines, Colors, Stories."

"This is the first art gallery established in a mental health clinic on the Chinese mainland," said Chen Zhimin, resident doctor in SMHC's Clinical Psychology Department, who is also the exhibition's curator.

According to Chen, the aim behind the gallery is to raise public awareness and eliminate misunderstanding about mental health, as well as open a new gate for the public to get closer to the inner world of the center's patients.

"I call them patient artists because I really feel their artwork has artistic values," Chen said. "They express their interpretation of the world around us through paintings. When you look at their artwork, you feel subtle emotions, you feel shock and you sense imagination."

All 60 paintings on show were created by inpatients who have been living with mental illness during their daily art therapy sessions, according to Zhong Na, deputy director of SMHC's Rehabilitation Department.

Healing power of art therapy on display at mental health center's new gallery
Ti Gong

Zhong Na (right), deputy director of SMHC's Rehabilitation Department and Wang Zucheng, former director of SMHC, at the opening ceremony of No. 600 Gallery.

The rehabilitation center is dedicated to building an innovative mental rehabilitation and recovery management mode. Because it's a non-invasive form of intervention and doesn't require special, expensive medical equipment, art therapy is a great method to help patients enhance their self-expression and improve their emotional health and interpersonal connections.

According to relevant studies, after one year of drawing therapy, patients with schizophrenia can significantly increase their self-awareness, confidence and dignity, helping them regain social functions. It also helps patients with autism, anxiety, depression, Alzheimer's, bulimia nervosa and substance abuse issues.

"Generally, the goal of art therapy for patients with mental disorders is more focused on the process. But I think if we can help them establish self-confidence and social recognition through an exhibition, it will have a more profound mental impact on them," Chen said.

Healing power of art therapy on display at mental health center's new gallery
Ti Gong

Black holes are a constant theme of one patient.

Healing power of art therapy on display at mental health center's new gallery

A painting that illustrates an intertwined force: The Universe drags the stars while the stars break through the universe.

Healing power of art therapy on display at mental health center's new gallery
Ti Gong

This painting depicts a fantasy world where you can fly on a carpet to a universe far, far away.

The universe, sky and stars are primary subjects of many artworks.

"This phenomenon has a philosophical touch, don't you think? For those patients who physically spend most of their lives in very constricted spaces, they have such a vast vision internally," said Chen.

Art Brut, or Outsider Art, is the term for self-taught artists presenting their experiences outside the restrictive bounds of society. Originally created by psychiatric patients, prisoners and outcasts, the works illustrate their fragile mental states and unorthodox perspectives of the world.

Doctor Chen and his colleagues want to use this experimental art project to change society's prejudice toward places like SMHC. People used to make jokes about "No. 600 Wanping Road South," where SMHC is located, and associate it with the word "crazy."

They finally chose the name "No. 600 Gallery" to humorize their attempt to change people's stigmas, stereotypes and misunderstandings.

"A one-time art exhibition won't serve it well. We will make this gallery permanent and have regular art exhibition and events every two to three months, with the hope that No. 600 Gallery will become a cultural hot spot," Chen said, emphasizing the project is "a collective effort by the whole team."

Chen is now pursuing his doctorate in the Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine. He and Dr Zhong talked about the idea and efforts behind this exhibition, SMHC's art therapy program, as well as the importance that art therapy plays in patients' rehabilitation process.

Q: What inspired you to hold an exhibition inside a mental heath hospital?

Chen: Our hospital has a long history of using art therapy and other rehabilitation approaches such as occupational therapy and vipassana, or meditation. So I wanted to do some experimental projects that relate to art. The idea of having their artworks exhibited actually started two years ago when I experimentally set up an art ward in the B1 section of SMHC's Minhang branch, where we encourage inpatients to draw and create art during their recovery period. I also started to collect paintings, which I believe have great artistic value based on the large volume of works created during inpatients' routine art therapy.

Q: Can you explain the title "Art Brut: Lines, Colors, Stories?"

Chen: The concept of art brut is that the patients don't have professional art backgrounds, and haven't learned to apply great artistic techniques. They use simple lines and colors to illustrate their stories. For example, one of my patients likes to paint black holes. During our routine therapy process, he would draw them in different formats and contexts. We spend a lot time with patients reflecting on what they've painted, and use it as a way to interpret their mental world.

Q: Can you share with us SMHC's art therapy program?

Zhong: Art therapy uses non-verbal methods to help patients express emotions, release depressed feelings and relieve early-age trauma they don't even recognize on their own. It's often carried out in group sessions under the guidance of doctors, psychologists, therapists and volunteers. A typical phase will last six weeks and be integrated into each patient's individual assessment. Here in SMHC's Rehabilitation Daycare Center, we incorporate various kinds of therapy to help patients regain social functions that were often ignored in the past. For art therapy, we will incorporate methods like House-Tree-Person and Mandalas, as well as other art forms such as dance and music.

The idea behind this exhibition's title "Art Brut" emphasizes connections – patients' connections and communication created during the art-making process, as well as the connection between the patient's creation and the audience. Art is the carrier. So this exhibition serves our ambition to eliminate the public's misunderstandings, prejudice and negative opinions about patients with mental disorders, as well as spread an accurate portrayal of patients' rehabilitation. Regaining social functions through therapy is as important as undergoing medical treatment to cure or control their psychiatric symptoms such as illusions and delusions.

Healing power of art therapy on display at mental health center's new gallery
Ti Gong

Dr Chen (middle) during an art therapy session with patients at SMHC's Minhang branch.

Q: Is art therapy effective in the rehabilitation process?

Chen: Definitely. Especially for those patients who suffer from mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder, are young and have better behavioral functions. Art therapy can help them release emotions through drawings, and most of their works have strong expressions. For elderly patients and those who have been hospitalized for long periods of time, their artworks can finally be exhibited and appreciated by the public. It's a small experiment but great recognition for them as they try to seek meaningful lives. It will enhance their enthusiasm for art therapy and the creative process. The healing power of art is of great importance.

Zhong: Apart from traditional therapy that leads patients to talk out their trauma, art therapy uses non-verbal methods to do so and improve interpersonal relationships that are quite difficult to describe in words. Sometimes because patients are not aware of their hidden traumas, and sometimes because those feelings have been deeply repressed. We give them some topics to think over and then lead them to paint.

For example, during one of our daily art therapy sessions with the theme "a memorable experience," a patient drew an intense scene that shows a young man about to jump off a bridge into the river. Standing beside the young man is an old guy. During the reflection, the patient, who suffers from serious schizophrenia and has symptoms like paracusia, said this is the man who saved him from jumping when he was a teenager. At that time, many people walked past him and didn't care. Only this old guy said "do not jump," very simple words that saved him.

This is how art therapy helps him bring out his inner feelings, because normally he is very cold and impassive with people and has verbal barriers and disorders.

Q: How frequent are art therapy sessions?

Chen: Our patients receive art therapy sessions on a daily basis. The painting process increases their joy and serves as a hobby.

Art itself is a form of expression. It helps people concentrate, freely express themselves, speak out inner emotions and seek identification and acknowledgement from the outside world. It also boosts participants' concentration, sense of belonging and creativity.

Q: What are the future plans for No. 600 Gallery?

Chen: We want this gallery to serve as a bridge between mental health patients and the public. In the future, we plan to hold exhibitions on different topics related to mental health, such as eating disorders, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia; as well as other topics centered on reducing the stigma of this disease, helping patients retain social functions and increasing the rate of early-stage outpatient visits.

On the other hand, we hope to attract art resources from the public, such as curators and artists who care about mental health and have works depicting the topic.

We are looking for communication and idea exchanges on the mental level. Through their artworks, you may find our patients are not that weird or fearful, but kind of lovely and adorable.

About SMHC

The Shanghai Mental Health Center (SMHC), formerly known as the Shanghai Psychiatric Hospital, was founded in 1958. Its predecessor, Mercy Hospital, was established in 1935. In addition to serving as a mental health clinic offering medication management and psychotherapy, the center is involved in teaching, research and mental health prevention planning for Shanghai and the rest of China. Its clinical services include psychology, mood disorders, geriatric psychiatry, child & adolescent psychiatry, drug abuse and adult psychiatry. It also provides psychological counseling and psychotherapy conducted by senior psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and trained therapists.

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