Series| Catalysts

Can creativity solve our mental health crisis?

This nonprofit prescribes art and creativity for better mental health.
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Jeff Sparr was a star player on the Ohio State University men’s tennis team when his mental health issues first flared up. He suddenly started experiencing bouts of extreme dread. Other times, his mind was bombarded with intrusive thoughts. “Fear, panic, misunderstanding,” he says. 

The anxiety was so intense that it landed Sparr in a psychiatric hospital.

He was quickly diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a psychological condition marked by repetitive, unshakeable thoughts and the urge to repeat certain behaviors over and over, sometimes to a debilitating degree.

“I did what I thought any good athlete would do; I sucked it up,” Sparr says. “And I got worse. It impacted my life significantly.”

People with untreated OCD often struggle with executive function. Their thoughts become so obsessive and narrow-minded, their actions so compulsive and repetitive, that they fail to perform essential life tasks. Simple tasks such as going to the grocery store can become huge, time-consuming ordeals. More complicated endeavors, such as holding down a job or maintaining interpersonal relationships, are even more difficult.

‘I never painted a day in my life’

For Sparr, salvation came in the form of a paintbrush.

Sparr was driving home from work one day when a friend called him and mentioned that many people suffering from mental wellness issues find solace in artistic expression, specifically painting.

 “I never painted a day in my life, but when you’re desperate, you’ll try anything.”

Jeff Sparr

Immediately after the call, Sparr stopped driving home and rerouted to the paint supply store. “I picked up a bunch of supplies and came home and now you’re looking at the Forrest Gump of painting — I never stopped,” he says.

Sparr’s first painting session was, quite literally, life-changing. The powerlessness and anxiety he felt as a result of his psychiatric condition lifted. His soul was “invigorated,” so much so he felt compelled to share his new hobby with other people struggling with mental wellness.

In 2009, Sparr and his cousin, and co-founder, Matt Kaplan purchased a horde of art supplies and brought them to a children’s hospital. Sparr shared his experience living with OCD and how painting helps him treat it, and he encouraged the children to give it a try themselves. Many of the children had trouble expressing themselves verbally, but art unlocked their creativity. Much like with Jeff, painting afforded the children a much-needed sense of calm and control and helped alleviate the symptoms of their mental illnesses.

“Wellness and hope sometimes come in the smallest stroke or piece of creativity,” Sparr says. “What we’ve been able to do is give people an opportunity to maybe have one of those moments. And those moments can change people’s lives.”

PeaceLove for mental wellness

The trip was so successful it inspired Jeff and Matt to formalize the practice. They founded PeaceLove, a non-profit that fosters mental wellness through art and creativity.

The benefits of expressive arts workshops are manifold and well-documented. The program has been shown to have a positive impact on children with psychosocial problems and increase sensorimotor function, self-esteem and social skills in all populations. 

PeaceLove isn’t limited to just painting, though — its workshops incorporate art in various forms, including poetry, music, dance, collages and movement. The act of creating, producing something where there once was nothing, helps people feel empowered, regardless of the medium. And that is especially important for people who feel like they’ve lost a certain amount of control due to their mental illness.

“You invite people into a safe space, where there is no judgment, and it allows people to utilize their creativity as a way to express themselves.”

Jeff Sparr

“Somehow it gives you the courage to just be. And once you can just be, then you have the opportunity to find some peace of mind.”

PeaceLove expanded in 2015 with the CREATORS Program, which trains professionals to conduct PeaceLove expressive art workshops on their own.

In the above video, we see a CREATORS workshop from start to finish. A handful of people participate in a Story Shoes workshop taught by PeaceLove facilitator Jose Rosario. The all-white shoes serve as a canvas for a multi-material art project.

Central to each of these artistic practices is encouraging the participants to access their deepest thoughts and emotions, particularly ones that are otherwise unavailable to them. The ability to access, understand and regulate emotions is vital to mental wellness.

One of the participants, Sarah Edwards, in substance abuse recovery, creates a shoe adorned with shrubs, flower petals and moss, symbolizing her reconnection with the natural world. “When I finally came to recovery, I re-rooted myself to nature. It’s one of the only places where I can feel fully present,” she says.

“What we saw today was incredible,” says Rosario, after the workshop ended. “We saw a bunch of strangers coming in, completely unsure what to expect…we saw real human connection happening, and that’s healing in action.”

However, life is chaotic and sometimes it’s not possible to attend a workshop in person. Or, maybe someone needs to unwind or destress regularly throughout the week. That’s why PeaceLove has recently expanded to  virtual expressive art workshops, through a program called Scribl. Through both live and pre-recorded classes, participants can work on their mental wellness right from the comfort of their living room.

Sparr has been spreading the gospel of art as a wellness tool for 12 years now, and is now expanding to bring their workshops online through their new virtual platform, Scribl. And while he openly admits he’s not a certified mental health professional, he fiercely believes in the power of art to promote mental wellness.

He’s seen it happen first hand numerous times. In every PeaceLove workshop, Sparr sees people experiencing the same mix of joy, relief and optimism that he received from his first painting session. He doesn’t have the education and credentials to prescribe formal mental wellness treatments, but he does prescribe creativity to the world. Because everyone has the power to create — and in turn be transformed themselves.

“When I’m watching people in my workshop, the reason I pop and light up and get so excited is that I relate to every one of those people,” Sparr says, reflecting on the PeaveLove workshop.

“I relate to the struggle. I relate to the pain. I relate to the hope they feel, how creativity is touching and changing them. That’s a beautiful thing.”

Jeff Sparr
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