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Art by Lee Gork

Photo by Ashley Gork/MEDILL

An expression of depression and anxiety through clay. Lee Gork

Depressed teens drawn to the arts? New study says yes; Chicago art therapist says study is biased

by Ashley Gork
Jan 31, 2013

Teens involved in the arts exhibit higher symptoms of depression than those not involved in the arts, a Boston researcher is reporting. However, a local art therapist says she found the study biased, generalized and potentially damaging to future art programs.

Boston College researcher Laura Young and her colleagues found a significant correlation between depressive symptoms and the practice of music, art and drama in a longitudinal study of 2,482 teens. A similar correlation for teens involved with sports was not found.

The study appeared in the November issue of the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts.

To explain the chicken-and-the-egg scenario, Young says, “Based on a lack of evidence that would suggest that the arts cause depression, and a continually growing body of research that links practice of the arts to improvements in mood and well-being, I am more inclined to expect that teens with higher depression scale scores may be more drawn to the arts due to their potentially therapeutic effects.”

A Chicago psychologist agrees that art can be therapeutic, but says the study does a poor job at displaying this concept. As an art therapist at the Adler School of Psychology in Chicago, Lariza Fenner uses various forms of visual arts to increase social and educational engagement for unprivileged adolescents in Chicago. She believes that art can create a strong dialogue for a variety of emotions, not just depression.

Fenner draws attention to the possible intervening variable embedded into the bottom of Young’s study that suggests teens involved in the arts might have a wider range of emotions in general.

“Creativity is generally thought of in terms of right brain activity – emotional processing is there as well,” Fenner explains. She theorizes that those involved in the arts may engage in a higher order processing that allows them to more quickly identity an array of feelings.

By focusing just on depression, as opposed to this range of emotions, Fenner says the study stigmatizes both the arts and adolescents. She also expresses a concern regarding local politicians choosing cut funding to art programs as a result of this study.

“Politicians look to psychologists for insight,” she says, “they’ll take it at face value.”

But Young stands behind her research, saying that it would be both inappropriate and foolish for policy makers to make funding decisions based on this correlational study. She notes the need for more experimentation in order to better understand the correlation, isolate its direction of causality, and identity any other variables that might affect the link.

“The threat of these outcomes should not be allowed to stifle inquiry,” Young says. “We stand by the use of statistical analysis of data to provide unbiased clues into difficult questions in psychology of the arts, including this one.”