Art is a great way to express your thoughts and feelings, and for those living with mental illness, putting a brush to canvas can not only provide an outlet, but also a way to cope.

The walls of the art studio at the Abbie J. Lane Building in Halifax are lined with the creations of acute mental health inpatients.

“People are very ill when they first come in and they can’t always communicate with us,” says recreational therapist Jacqueline Connors. “They can’t always talk about what is going on inside their head. It’s not something we can see, so art is really used as a way to get what’s going on, out.”

Connors helps participants with their art at the weekly therapy sessions. She has witnessed the positive effects of the program through the patients’ creations.

“You see it go from being very disorganized, from being maybe some scary things, some dark colours, and it starts to lighten as they improve in their admission,” says Connors.

It is not only the paintings that change, but the artists themselves.

“We really notice them just being more comfortable, developing skills, developing confidence, being able to feel comfortable with other people in the room,” says Connors.

Megan Turetzek-Windsor runs a similar program at the Mayflower unit of the Nova Scotia Hospital. She feels providing a creative outlet is an important part of healing and opening the lines of communication.

“When you bring art into the picture, it takes the pressure off that one-to-one relationship and it opens up this space where people can talk freely and build relationships and find out about what their interests are, what their life is like,” says Turetzek-Windsor.

Seeing a project through from start to finish offers a great sense of accomplishment and self-confidence, feelings that can carry over outside the program.

“If you’re looking for a job, you know that you can focus on an art piece, so you know you can focus on doing a resume, so it’s all kind of transferable,” says Turetzek-Windsor.

The Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia funds the art programs. President and CEO Starr Dobson says these types of therapies allow patients to feel like a whole person.

“We know that while they’re in a hospital setting they’ll receive the care of the physicians and the experts they need. We know that they’ll receive the medication they need, but what we want to make sure is that they also receive the attention they need as a person and art therapy really does that because it provides them with an outlet,” says Dobson.

The upcoming Festival of Trees is the foundation’s major fundraiser. The art therapy participants have created cones to be auctioned off at this year’s event.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to let people who benefit from the funds that are raised at the Festival of Trees to have the opportunity to know that they’ve played a part, that they’ve not only raised money, but they’ve helped raise awareness about what takes place in a hospital setting,” says Dobson.

Connors says the patients are happy to help.

“The participants feel a lot of sense of pride in being able to do that and give back, so that it’s not always given to them, but they’re able to give back to the Mental Health Foundation for all of the support and funding they’ve received,” says Connors.