“With coronavirus looming large, common decency tells us that art should be among the least of our concerns. Gov. Sisolak issued a statewide mandate to close all non-essential businesses by March 20, shutting down dozens of art museums, galleries, theaters, and music halls—just a day after the closure of the Reno News & Review, a staple for arts coverage (and everything else coverage) in Reno.
If there was ever a time to question the “non-essentiality” of art in our daily lives, this is it. And if there was ever a time to challenge the short-sightedness of that claim, this is also it. I’m not trying to downplay the very real problems we’re facing—as of March 20, there were 95 reported cases of coronavirus in Nevada and 15,650 cases in the U.S.—but it’s not a zero sum game. Recognizing the value of the arts in our community, whether or not that community is facing unprecedented economic, health, and food insecurity (which, by the way, it always is to some degree) does not take away from the attention and resources that those areas deserve.
Art is, and always has been, essential to our mental health, an area that is thrown into sharp relief during quarantine, when we finally have enough time to sit down with our children and watch a dwindling population of sea monkeys swim for minutes on end (which feel like hours on end) while still having enough time left over to rewatch both seasons of Detroiters (a perfect show), all the while obsessively refreshing our phones for virus updates.
We might also be realizing that we’re not as OK as we thought we were—despite the clues. For as long as I can remember, our baseline for “normal life” has included climate change, run-amok capitalism, and the criminalization of bodies that have vaginas, less money, or more melanin than the standard power-holder. Add to that a global pandemic and a general mistrust of authority, and you have a hotbed for collective breakdown.
Bracing for a breakdown
While scientists are predicting spikes and eventual plateaus for COVID-19 infected patients, psychologists and medical doctors are preparing for a wave of neurological disorders that might not flatten out so quickly.
Quarantine goes hand in hand with psychological distress. In a 2004 study on the effects of the SARS quarantine in Toronto, researchers found a high prevalence of depression and PTSD. Yesterday, in a piece for Medpage Today, Dr. Russell Copelan added his predictions to this list, citing “generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, severe phobias … and acute adjustment disorder (AD), precipitating or worsening existing suicidality …”
In addition to mental health flare-ups, Copelan also has concerns about a myopic focus on COVID-19 by health workers and the potential misdiagnosis of more severe anxiety disorders being treated as “depression-lite” in response to the one-paintbrush effect of the current outbreak.
For a country where general anxiety disorders and depression already touch large percentages of the population—anxiety afflicts 19.1% of us, depression 7.1%—the spillover effect for an event like coronavirus could be substantial.
Dealing with the fallout will require a combination of big changes (universal healthcare) and smaller ones like employing best practices we already have (stepped care and integrative mental health approaches). Included in the latter is art―or more accurately the arts. Visual art, movement art, music, theater, writing … the entire field of creative expression that we have at our disposal.
The intersection of art and health—and the psychological benefits of art on health—have been well documented for as long as humans have been making art and getting sick, but with results that have been largely anecdotal or inconclusive. It is only in the last 20 years that controlled and systemic research has born out what we’ve suspected all along.
Studies in the early 2000s confirmed that music can significantly mitigate anxiety, visual art expression can help maintain a positive identity, and both reduce hospital stays. Dance and martial arts enhance overall quality of life. Writing helps patients process trauma.
In medical settings, research suggests that art therapy can help reduce anxiety and burnout in healthcare workers. A 2017 study found that the mere presence of visual art in hospitals makes patients feel safer and can bolster the degree of satisfaction they have with their treatment. A month ago, before coronavirus hit the U.S. (unbelievably, it has only been three weeks since the first case in Washington state) the Reno News & Review ran a piece about how local and national hospitals are using virtual reality programs to stream calming nature footage that assists with patients’ anxiety and pain management.
Now, leading research hospitals are ready to start comparing apples to oranges—finally asking the question about whether art interventions actually work better than standard ones for chronic healthcare. Beginning in June, the Cleveland Clinic is scheduled to launch an 8-week randomized controlled trial that will enroll 168 patients in two different health programs—one that is arts-based and one that is not.
Beyond treating sickness, anyone who is stuck at home right now can look to art for everyday wellness. I’m talking about watching Detroiters, but I’m also talking about making your own art, looking at other people’s art, even playing video games.
According to a 2014 study on the neurological effects of making art, it’s clear that it can actually change your brain—specifically when it comes to the improved interaction between the frontal, posterior, and temporal brain regions. In other words, you build more psychological resilience by creating new neural networks.
Even better, looking at art can feel like falling in love. In a study done by neurobiologist Semir Zeki that examined the brain scans of people who looked at art, at the time they were looking at art, a consistent pleasure response was activated. This is thanks to a spike in dopamine, which, consequently, is also a neurotransmitter that shows up when you create art.
Video games. I don’t play them … but, um, LOTS of people do, and I imagine those people are playing them right now, bravely doing their part to practice social distancing and self isolation. While the long-term effects of playing video games on mental and emotional well being are a mixed bag, there are some bright spots for gamers under quarantine. Working memory and sustained attention among them. Also, dopamine! That said, video game addiction is a real thing. Definitely not as concerning as a virus that could—worst case—kill 1.1 million Americans should the experts’ scariest projections bear out, but concerning nonetheless.
The good news? There are places we can go to for restoration—from gaming, from coronavirus, from our oppressive proximity to dying sea monkeys. A 2010 study by tourism researcher Jan Packer identified two ideal environments for mental restoration based on their ability to help people “relax and recover from the stresses of life.” One is museums. The other is nature.
So go ahead and count down the days until you can see The World Stage exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art. In the meantime, take a walk. Look at the daffodils because they’re blooming—today’s the third day of spring.