Apr 26, 2024

Mental Health Awareness Month: Exploring Art as a Tool for Wellbeing

by: Nadia Malik

Color Me Back. Photo: Steve Weinik.

It’s not unusual to see staff and artists walking around the Mural Arts building in clothes covered with paint – we are an arts organization, after all. However, I come to Mural Arts in a unique way: I’m a social worker who oversees the Porch Light Department, and artmaking is not my expertise. I strongly believe in it as a tool for mental health, but I never saw myself as one of the creatives.

That changed in a big way during the early months of the pandemic. All my normal coping mechanisms for stress and anxiety were failing me. I turned to the thing that we provide for our participants in our programs in Porch Light. I ordered a bunch of paint by numbers, and when I was feeling overwhelmed, I’d take them out and start working away. That time in creativity allowed me to process what I was feeling and concentrate on a goal that was right in front of me. Soon, painting became part of my ritual to close out the day.

Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, we over at the Porch Light Department, thought we’d share some of why we appreciate artmaking as one of the tools for supporting wellbeing and some of what we’ve heard from program participants.


Color Me Back. Photo: Troy Bynum.

Emily Crane, who oversees the Color Me Back same-day work program, continually hears about situations in the program and the personal lives of staff and participants. Color Me Back serves some of the most vulnerable populations in the city, and it’s a lot of problem-solving and helping others process their feelings on a daily basis. For Emily, art, whether sketching, coloring, or even cooking, is “a helpful tool when I don’t want to talk about what’s going on or I’ve already talked too much about what’s happening.”

Many of Emily’s feelings about artmaking are also reflected in Color Me Back participants, who often provide feedback about why they appreciate being in the program. A common sentiment among folks is that they feel relaxed, peaceful, and productive while taking part in making murals and other art projects in our studio spaces.

Art is only one of the many outlets for mental health support. The biggest is, of course, reaching out for mental health services. Those seeking emergency help should immediately dial or text 988. Porch Light is a partnership with the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, which provides access to treatment, clinical services, and support groups.

Shatoya Howard, who oversees community work in Porch Light, found through her journey as a social worker that yoga was the best outlet for her. “No other forms of wellness have helped me get my trauma out and help me to connect with myself, which then helps me connect with others.”


Mindful Writing Workshop, 2023. Photo: Erin Blewett.

In one of our most recent projects, which focuses on raising awareness about suicide, we offered weekly mindfulness writing workshops to anyone who has been impacted by suicide, and those weekly moments allowed people to process things that had happened in their lives and their feelings about them. One participant shared how creativity in this one way helped her find another creative outlet she thought was lost to her when she lost her son. Because she often read to her son, she hadn’t been able to focus on reading again. However, the writing sessions helped her process that and brought back her love of reading.

Whether art is an outlet for you or not, the most important thing is finding support systems for mental health. Talk to your friends and family about what you’re going through. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to them, reach out to 988. If you think you’d like to talk to a therapist, but don’t know where to start, start with your insurance provider or call the DBHIDS line at (215) 685-5400. Also, know you’re not alone. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 adults experience a mental illness every year. Taking a single step toward more sound mental health can make all the difference in the world.

Porch Light program participants 

  • Voices of Survivors workshop, March 6, 2020. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • On March 30, 2021 Mural Arts hosted an open-air art show and concert to commerate participant art from the Kensington Storefront. The event also marked the end of four years at the Somerset location. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • The Kensington Storefront Van reveal and dedication, October 6, 2022. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Color me Back with Paul Santoleri, March 13, 2023. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Color me Back with Paul Santoleri, March 13, 2023. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Garden Wall in-process, May 4, 2023. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Garden Wall in-process, May 4, 2023. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Color Me Back 4 year anniversary exhibition and event at Suburban Station. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Last updated: Apr 26, 2024

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