Art as Therapy: Using Community Art to Support Mental Health During the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on mental health, affecting everyone in different ways. The sudden change in lifestyle, including lockdowns, quarantines and social distancing, caused widespread feelings of isolation and anxiety. Many people were forced to work from home, while others lost their jobs entirely, and support networks were no longer accessible. In this blog post, we reflect on the challenges posed by the pandemic and how we used community art to support mental wellbeing during this time of emotional upheaval.

It had only been nine months since delivering our first project as an organisation when the pandemic hit in March 2020. Despite positive feedback from participants and other community organisations, the sudden shift to the “new normal” brought our planning and fundraising for new projects to a halt. And with over two decades of combined experience in community art, we were only too aware of the struggles faced by the people we worked with. 

As freelance artists, we also faced the loss of work and income, and lacked the infrastructure to support our participants in ways that we had previously. Fortunately, we were able to work with funders to defer projects until later in the year, allowing us to rethink our delivery methods and reallocate funds to support people to get online.

The result of this were three remote projects; a zine-making project working with people in highrise blocks in and around Burmantofts funded by Leeds Inspired, a postcard project with residents of Gamble Hill, and a film and photography project working with ESOL learners across the city funded by Leeds City Council’s Communities Team. To facilitate these projects, mobile data was provided to participants to join video calls, and art kits containing worksheets and materials were distributed to enable people to create work at home.

While we had intended to provide a distraction from the pandemic, during the workshops conversation inevitably turned to ideas of loneliness, isolation and the things that people missed, and this was reflected in the artwork they produced. In this way, our projects became a powerful tool for promoting mental health and wellbeing during this time of intense stress and uncertainty, particularly for the more vulnerable members of the community.

Engaging in art with others provided a way for individuals to express their emotions in verbal and non-verbal ways. Through focusing on the present moment, people could step outside their own thoughts and instead focus on the creative process, reducing anxiety and promoting mindfulness. On a practical level, we also worked closely with organisations such as Touchstone and Mentally Healthy Leeds who provided mental health support, and were able to signpost to other services, including foodbanks. 

Now we can finally meet in person again, we are able to take those lessons forward to understand how we can further use community art to promote mental health and wellbeing, and we continue to work with other organisations to support people across the city. If you’re struggling with your mental health or just want the opportunity to connect with other people in a relaxed environment, you can find out about a range of services at Mindwell or pop down to Collective on a Tuesday.