February 1st, 2013

Arts participation linked to higher rates of teen depression

Teens involved in after-school arts activities report more depressive symptoms than those participating in only sports according to a study published last November in the American Psychological Association’s journal “Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts.”

Boston College researchers assessed how frequently 15-and 16-year old respondents experienced poor appetite, difficulty concentrating, depressed mood, lack of energy/motivation, poor sleep and sadness. Girls were more likely to take part in the arts after school and reported slightly higher rates of depression. Adolescents involved in the arts had higher verbal IQ and working memory scores than those not involved.

Studies have shown a higher than average incidence of psychological disorders in adult artists, but this new study is the first to find a correlation between young people’s participation in the arts and depression. Researchers wanted to determine if there was a heightened incidence of mental illness in adolescents choosing to become involved in activities such as music, drawing, painting and drama.

“This increase in depressive symptoms may be better thought of as an increase in access to negative emotions,” says lead author Laura N. Young, MA, of Boston College’s Department of Psychology.

Young people may be drawn to the arts to help them cope with the rise of negative emotions, Young says.

“There’s evidence in adults that participation in the arts has therapeutic effects so it’s possible that maybe these teens are more introverted or more self-aware about their negative emotions and it’s leading them to go toward activities that are therapeutic for them, which in this case are the arts.”

The study assessed teens in three groups: those participating in only arts activities, those in only sports and those who did both. The teens who did sports exclusively were the least likely to report depressive symptoms. There was no difference in depressive symptoms between the teens who did exclusive arts and those who did both arts and sports. The authors concluded that arts participation rather than a lack of sports participation was associated with depression.

The subjects were from a cross-sectional sample of nearly 2,500 adolescents born between 1986 and 1995 and assessed in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010 at age 15 or 16. Girls and boys were evenly represented. In the sample, 53.5 percent were non-Black, non-Hispanic, 27.2 percent were black and 19.4 percent were Hispanic.

Artistic engagement has been shown to decrease anxiety, stress and mood disturbances. Music, for example, can calm neural activity in the brain. But Young says more research is needed to understand how emotions react with cognitive functioning in practice of the arts.

“We know so little about what goes on emotionally and cognitively when people are doing the arts,” Young adds.

An artist herself, Young suggests that perhaps artists have cognitive traits that lead them to experience the world in unique ways. Future research should address whether arts participation encourages better access to a fuller range of emotions, which in turn increases the risk of experiencing depressive symptoms.

By Janine Weisman

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