Learning about art and visiting museums can do wonders for mental health

Everyone can benefit from the healing power of art, including young people facing challenges

A school workshop at the Sharjah Art Museum. Photo: Sharjah Museum
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In the face of escalating mental health concerns among today's youth, it is important to prioritise their well-being. Museums can educate, inspire and can even transform the lives of young people who embark on self-discovery. By developing innovative, accessible programmes that emphasise well-being, museums can harness the therapeutic and transformative qualities of art.

In the UAE, museums and cultural spaces have the potential to empower young minds as they provide immersive experiences and community engagement programmes, which go a long way to foster connection and prioritise holistic growth.

According to the World Health Organisation, mental health disorders affect 10-20 per cent of children and adolescents worldwide. Depression and anxiety are the most prevalent mental health conditions among teenagers, and recent studies have indicated a concerning rise in such issues. Factors such as academic pressure, the influence of social media and family dynamics can contribute to the vulnerability young people may feel.

While data on mental health issues among Middle Eastern teenagers is limited, there have been studies that suggest depression and anxiety rates among Middle Eastern teenagers are on the rise.

The stigma surrounding mental health in the Middle East, including the UAE, is influenced by a range of cultural, social and historical factors. These factors can vary across countries within the region, but several common themes emerge. Mental health problems can often be perceived as a sign of weakness and personal failure. In close-knit communities, such as the UAE, there can be concerns about judgment and negative consequences in personal and professional spheres. These often lead to people concealing their mental health challenges and not seeking help.

Historically, mental health has been given significantly less priority compared to physical health. The lack of awareness and understanding about mental health conditions and their causes contributes to negative attitudes. A limited mental health infrastructure and access to resources further exacerbate the stigma.

My own quiet struggle with anxiety for years, which started in my adolescence, propelled me to choose this research topic, which I conducted over six weeks in various US cities this year as part of my Eisenhower Fellowship programme.

The unique opportunity allowed me time to explore therapeutic benefits of art, for example, in promoting emotional well-being in young adults. I delved into fields such as creative therapies, trauma recovery, performance science and positive psychology through site visits, interviews and discussions with educators, psychiatrists, students, museum professionals, scientists and thought leaders in this area. In the process, I discovered innovative approaches and ways to understand the complexity in providing effective overall health and healing.

In an increasingly fast-paced and interconnected globalised world, culture and art possess transformative powers that can enrich the human experience. Museums have the potential to enhance well-being, which goes beyond their traditional roles as preservers of material culture and providers of educational opportunities.

Overall well-being can be achieved by utilising these readily available cultural spaces and art collections as tools to cultivate mindfulness in young people, through programmes especially designed for this purpose. Whether through deep-looking art workshops or hands-on creative activities, participants can achieve a state of engagement throughout the year that promotes a sense of calm and encourages them to disconnect from anxious thoughts.

Performance arts can also empower individuals and foster personal growth, self-discovery and self-confidence. Moreover, studies prove the benefits of engaging in cultural and artistic endeavours such as painting, music, dance and theatre. Young adults gain a deeper understanding of their identity, strengths and aspirations when they explore their artistic abilities and cultivate their unique voices. This self-empowerment and increased self-esteem translates into improved well-being.

Beyond the individual experience, culture and art have the power to build communities and connections. Festivals, public art and exhibitions serve as platforms for shared experiences, enabling people to connect with others who share similar interests and passions.

These social connections and support networks build resilience and emotional well-being in young adults, which are essential for a successful productive future. I have witnessed in visitors at Sharjah museums moments of quiet solo reflection and also group activities that have left participants feeling a range of positive emotions – joyful, contemplative and confident.

As mental health challenges continue to afflict young adults, it is crucial to prioritise their well-being and look beyond healthcare providers as being the only solution. Museums in the UAE can serve as catalysts for positive mental health outcomes by being accessible, inviting, engaging and conducive.

By recognising and embracing the intrinsic value of culture and art, we can create a society that prioritises holistic well-being. This can be done through programmes that integrate positive psychology, art therapy and mindfulness so that young people can navigate life's challenges and thrive as happier and healthier individuals.

Published: July 18, 2023, 7:00 AM