Schools today struggle to help students who daily deal with serious mental health issues that include anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, and suicide. Christian schools, too, face challenges. They aren’t exempt, and they may be better equipped to address mental health issues than other schools, since they stand on God’s truth and are strengthened by the Spirit. Concerned teachers are doing a good deal of prevention and intervention, giving students the gospel along with child psychology best-practices, and many are seeing positive results. But is an additional, helpful resource—creative expression in art class—being overlooked?
Christian educators understand that learning is essential for personal well-being, building up neighborhoods and communities, and growing local churches. Young people will go on to impact the world in some way. Every one of them has an opportunity to make their impact a positive one. Learning is the power they’ll wield, if they take possession of it—if teachers point them to it. Art is also powerful and can have a commanding role in education. It teaches students about themselves and others, it enriches their lives, and it effects change for society. Our culture is increasingly creative and increasingly run by creative people. The likes of Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos lead the way; it’s for art teachers to inspire those next in line.
Our culture is increasingly creative and increasingly run by creative people.
But art teachers can also help students who feel defeated. Poor mental health takes power away from children and adolescents; creative expression can begin to give it back.
God, Beauty, and Creative Expression
Art is all about beauty. Art is the impression and expression of beauty and meaning in symbolic shape or form. When artists go about making art, they are attempting to connect with an audience, to communicate personal feelings of longing or desire. Some attempts are satisfyingly successful; others fall short, leading to frustration. This is the problem of the artist: how to respond to beauty, what to do with longing, how to deal with desire. Creative expression is the artist’s proposed solution; it’s how the problem gets solved—or sometimes doesn’t.
Not all students are artists, of course, but we all share this same problem. Everyone longs for beauty; we all desire God. Ecclesiastes 3:11 reminds us that God has “set eternity in the human heart.” People young and old must respond to it; we will express ourselves. The goal is to make that expression healthy, to make it creative.
Expression is not just a release. It’s more than simply getting things out in order to move on from them. Rather, it’s a process of coming to a right understanding of ourselves. Art helps by acting as a mirror. Children and adolescents paint themselves into their creations and then respond to the reflection. Their projections are dealt with objectively, if from a short distance. Students can identify with what they see in the mirror, or they can change it, making it more positive, more beautiful.
Mental health issues, unfortunately, present challenges for children and adolescents. Biology, psychology, and environmental conditions all contribute to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, and suicide. Some students are born with chemical imbalances, for example. Others have experienced the death of a parent or their parents’ divorce. Many feel pressure to perform at high levels in sports or academics. Sexual abuse may be a factor. The list is long; the pain is often deep. Most don’t know what to do with their grief.
The way we’ve educated students hasn’t always helped either.
Adam Shea Lancaster (DEdMin, MDiv) is a professional artist, Christian minister, and art educator living outside Dallas, Texas. He can be contacted at adamlancasterart.com.