Mental Health & Imagination

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During a recent conference, someone posed an interesting question to me. Could the rise in mental health diagnoses be related to the decrease in true creative expression? According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 young people were diagnosed with mood, conduct, or anxiety disorders in 2015. If mental illness in our young people is in fact on the rise, what can we do? Can we improve the mental health outcomes of our youth by encouraging regular outlets for true creative expression?

The internet can offer us a clue to the popularity of creative expression in a multitude of ways. Bloggers and Vloggers are drawing us into the craft of writing and videography by showing us how to bake, sew, fish, and hit the ball better. These days, if you can name it, google can certainly find it! In a quick search, I found 892 million websites dedicated to the discussion of mental health and art. I found 106 million websites dedicated to the discussion of mental health and creativity. The Healing Power of Art states on their website, “At its best art has the power to heal, inspire, provoke, challenge, and offer hope. It can transform our physiological state and perception. It also has the power to awaken us to become more conscious about important issues affecting individuals, society, and the planet.”

In the 1990s the acronym S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) first appeared and it quickly became a buzzword for educators to increase programming focus toward the sciences and math. Lisa Catterall, a senior associate at the Centers for Research on Creativity, wrote an article entitled A Brief History of STEM and STEAM from an Inadvertent Insider in which she observed that 1993 saw deep cuts in art education funding and adversely affected a generation of learners. She believes creativity leads to innovation and makes people better citizens. She set out to educate the nation and her success is evident by the new acronym, STEAM, adding in an “A” for Art, and a renewed focus by curriculum companies and educators to include art as part of a well rounded curriculum.

So how can we define art and creativity? Both definitions include the word imagination. In our world of ‘how to’ videos and pre-packaged kits are our young people being encouraged to use their imaginations? A previous Extension News article comments on the hectic life styles our children lead and the difficulty we often have balancing priorities. If our children consider their hobbies to be work, imagination cannot be sparked. Team practice, dance practice, homework, and the ever present screen may lead to an over programmed group of young people and a stressed-out group of children (and parents!).

It seems that many people believe, as I now do, that true creative expression can indeed improve mental health outcomes of our young people. I encourage you to advocate for your children with their teachers, thank them if they are already trying, and in your home give your children unscheduled free space and time to imagine, innovate, build, consume, and create. You don’t have a 3-D printer? No Problem, a shoe box full of pipe cleaners, broken shells, glue, spare parts and enough time for the computer screens to fade away and the ideas to generate are all an elementary aged child needs to begin building the next great invention to improve our lives and their mental future. An old VCR and a screwdriver might encourage a child to creatively explore the world of electronics. A box of recycled tubes, bottles, cans, and time can begin to stir a creative plan.

At Lee County 4-H we are trying to grow young imaginations. We offer summer STEAM camps and clubs, encourage participation in the Lee Regional Fair by entering creative exhibits, and we recently offered an agricultural themed art competition during Farm City Week. November and December can be very busy and stressful months for our families. Take advantage of family time together and turn off the screens. Talk, play, relax, and create every chance you get to allow our young people to be imaginative innovators improving themselves and our future.

Pam Kerley is 4-H Program Assistant with North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.