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The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Creativity and Mental Health During the Pandemic 

The COVID pandemic and social upheaval of the past year have seen a subsequent increase in mental health issues. People are experiencing higher levels of anxiety and depression, and the World Health Organization reports increased demands for mental health services. Engagement with the arts has been studied and is proven to reduce anxiety and stress, foster feelings of well-being, create meaning out of illnesses and difficult experiences, and enhance positive emotional expression. Visual arts, performing arts, and dance were all found to improve well-being and can play vital roles in our lives at home during the pandemic, and in our broader communities.  

Engaging with creativity at home can involve the arts in a variety of ways. Coloring for adults has become a popular activity in recent years. Coloring books featuring animals, landscapes, mandalas, inspirational sayings, and humor are widely available. Coloring has a variety of health benefits, fostering mindfulness, hand eye coordination, and fear reduction. Crafting, knitting/crochet, and quilting can be great alternatives to a formal meditation or mindfulness practice, with similar benefits. Doodling and “zentangles” are also great de-stressing options - and all you need is a pen and paper! Following social distancing guidelines, many libraries are offering “take-and make” craft projects for children and adults. Check your local library’s website for more information and to sign up for available projects. Art and craft hobbies are just as beneficial as a formal artistic practice - creativity is for everyone!

Social distancing guidelines have changed the landscape for performers. Musicians and DJs have had to adjust as performance venues, theatres, and clubs have closed. Many have moved to online platforms, streaming for free on Facebook, Twitch, Mixcloud, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube. There are Zoom dance parties, dance instruction, and live music performances online. Free movement dancing is a great way to destress and boost your mood. The DANCEFREE movement hosts free dance parties, seeking to end bullying and body shaming through “encourag[ing] people to dance and have comfort in their own skin without the fear of shame.” Dancing has positive effects on mental health, building confidence, reducing depression and anxiety, improving cognitive ability and helping with emotional expression.  

During the pandemic, many domestic violence survivors and veterans have found themselves struggling with isolation, triggers, and anxiety. Some domestic violence shelters and support groups offer art therapy. The arts organization MAVE (Monson Against Violence Everywhere) provides free art workshops to domestic violence survivors and hosts a yearly art show. This exhibit features artwork from survivors and an installation of the Clothesline Project. The Warrior’s Art Room in Westfield, MA “provides veterans and active duty members of the Armed Forces of the United States of America and their immediate families” with art instruction, encouragement and support, and opportunities to exhibit work, while promoting “the creation of art to the veteran community.” Engaging with the arts can help veterans and abuse survivors to articulate difficult experiences, reduce PTSD symptoms, and help process the after-effects of trauma.

The arts can provide much-needed support for people living with mental health conditions, as well as working to increase awareness and erase stigma. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental illness) is a national organization that provides education, advocacy and support to individuals and families affected by mental illness. NAMI Western MA is currently accepting submissions of visual art and poetry for their annual art show. This yearly exhibition creates a space where “artists living with a mental health condition will have a chance to exhibit their talents and show the public how art can be a healing process during their recovery … [and also] help raise awareness about NAMI-WM and break the stigma often attached to mental illness.”  Currently on display at UMass’s Augusta Savage Gallery, is the exhibition POV: Out of Body - Anchor House of Artists. Located in Northampton, MA, Anchor House of Artists offers subsidized studios, gallery space, and art instruction to artists living with mental illnesses. Community connections and peer support can be an important part of mental health recovery and wellness.

In the fall of 2020, Augusta Savage Gallery also featured a digital exhibition called Breathing While Black that grapples with the realities of racism and how “in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic when the world suffers from the physical and psychological devastation of this plague, not only have Black people in the U.S. been disproportionately affected, but they also continue to be victims of hateful brute force.” BIPOC communities have been severely impacted, seeing more negative health and mental health outcomes during the pandemic. The American Art Therapy Association recently appealed to President Biden, urging him to “address mental health issues as part of his plans to combat the Coronavirus pandemic," asking him to "expand access to art therapy for our veterans, ... shift resources and response from law enforcement to mental health practitioners during mental health crises” and acknowledge the “serious mental health needs of children and adolescents caused by the pandemic … [and] persistent disparities in access to mental health services among Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.” Art therapy can be an important support tool for survivors, veterans, children, and POC along with more traditional forms of counseling.

During the global pandemic, social distancing, and Black Lives Matters protests, the arts emerged on many fronts.  Street art, public art, protest art, and pandemic art communicated the social changes, shifting awareness, unrest and upheaval of the past year. We have seen the importance of art as both political dissent and personal practice. The arts have provided space to process traumatic events and grapple with grief and loss. From personal creative practices and therapeutic supports, to public protest and street art, the arts have been an essential part of maintaining our well-being and social connections during the pandemic. As we move forward and the world begins to open up again, we can keep the visual arts, performing arts, music, and movement in our personal toolkits of stress-management, community engagement, resilience building, resistance, and self-expression.

The University of Saint Thomas has created a database of George Floyd and Anti-Racist Stress art to preserve the history of this protest art.

Veterans in urgent need of support can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 or text 838255.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline via text or call at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).

NAMI HelpLine is a free, nationwide peer-support service providing information, resource referrals and support to people living with mental health conditions, their family members and caregivers, mental health providers and the public. NAMI HelpLine can be reached Monday through Friday, 10 am–6 pm, ET. 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)

NAMI Crisis Text line: Text NAMI to 741-741

Connect with a trained crisis counselor to receive free, 24/7 crisis support via text message.

NAMI MA Resources to Support BLM & POC

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255




  • a close-up, birds eye view color photograph of kids' hands holding coloring pencils and coloring in black and white patterned coloring pages. The kids appear to all be white skinned and young. No faces are shown.