By Tara Bannow • The Bulletin

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Bouts of severe depression have plagued Jennifer Bakker since she was 13 years old. The last few years have been particularly rough for the 45-year-old, who moved to Bend with her family just under a year ago.

She’s been in treatment programs. Gone on and off numerous medications. Tried changing her diet. Exercised. Nothing seemed to chip at that persistent weight convincing her she wasn’t good enough.

About 10 months ago, in the midst of a particularly dark episode, she decided to try something new. She picked up a paintbrush and — unsure of what would come out — started to swoop the brush across the canvas back and forth in a free-form design. She chose a different color and dabbed it on using a paper towel at several spots across the canvas.

She didn’t expect it to be good. She didn’t expect much of anything.

“It was a revelation,” she said. “Not to be too hyperbolic, but I saw immediate success.”

Through painting, Bakker discovered a newfound energy and lightness within herself. She suddenly felt pride and accomplishment — feelings that were foreign to her and which her career as a registered nurse had never evoked.

Creative expression, whether through art, movement or music, has long been recognized as one of many important tools that can help people who have depression. For some, creating art elicits subconscious feelings they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. It can improve concentration, relieve stress, boost self-esteem and help people connect with their emotions.

“Often when we are engaged in doing something creative, we are able to access parts of ourselves which sometimes we can’t access through intellect or words or cognition alone,” said Michelle Dean, a board certified art therapist and board member with the American Art Therapy Association. “It’s sort of a workaround. It’s like a knowing through doing.”

A forgiving attitude

Bakker calls painting her “saving grace.” She’s bought dozens of tubes of paint and canvasses and — with her husband’s blessing — transformed half of their bedroom into a studio. A spare bedroom in the family’s basement is now something of a makeshift gallery, with paintings stacked on the floor and bed.

A longtime admirer of abstract art, Bakker decided to try that style. She watched a few YouTube videos for guidance and then went to town.

She didn’t go in expecting a masterpiece, but did so with what she describes as a forgiving attitude.

Adults doing art for therapeutic reasons tend to get especially caught up in the quality of their work, said Darlene Becker, a board certified art therapist and founder of Base Camp Studio in Bend.

It’s a misconception that only those who are skilled at art benefit from art therapy, she said.

While many people like Bakker benefit from creative expression on their own, mental health professionals called art therapists can also help guide them through the process. Research has shown art therapy can help people suffering from depression, trauma and anxiety.

A 2015 review of randomized controlled trials on art therapy’s effect on depression found that subjects in 6 out of 9 studies saw a significant reduction in depression. The review, published in the journal Health Technology Assessment, also included studies that found art therapy reduced subjects’ anxiety and distress and improved their self-esteem, mood and quality of life.

More recently, a group of 32 children undergoing chemotherapy scored significantly lower on a depression test following six group art therapy sessions compared with 33 children who did not receive art therapy. The study was published this spring in the Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research.

If people are especially self conscious or emotionally unstable, art therapists recommend starting with a more controlled medium such as markers or crayons on paper. As they begin to recover and gain confidence, art therapists will steer them toward looser mediums, which allow more freedom, such as acrylic paint and then wet clay or watercolor paints, Becker said.

It can be tough to see what feelings come out when someone in the throes of depression starts making art, said Elizabeth Meals, an art therapist and licensed professional counselor with Bend Art Therapy and Counseling.

“A lot of times people aren’t really expecting it,” she said, “so it’s really important to be with somebody that is trained and can help you get through that and process those feelings in a safe way so it doesn’t become overwhelming.”

Depression makes people feel stifled, paralyzed and isolated, said Dean, a board certified art therapist and licensed professional counselor.

“You feel really stuck or frozen,” she said. “The creative process forces movement. Whether you’re dancing or painting or singing, you have to move in order to create. In that way, it sort of challenges one to not be stagnant.”

A variety of tools

Although new to painting, Bakker is no stranger to art. For about a decade, she created mosaic pieces while barely scraping by financially.

At the height of the Great Recession, she decided she needed to earn more money for her family. She and her husband have a 15-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son. She enrolled in nursing school at age 38. Upon graduating, she quickly landed a job in the University of Chicago’s bone marrow transplant unit.

The work was intense. Fast paced.

“It proved to be too much for me,” she said, “and I hate to admit that. But I think that admitting that is key to one finding what they can do and what they should do.”

Bakker thinks being in the wrong profession can be very harmful for someone with depression. For her, success came through recognizing when she was forcing something and finding her niche.

She doesn’t claim to be a total success story. Rather, she said she’s found a way to get through.

For people with depression, the goal isn’t finding a cure, it’s finding meaning and a life worth living, Meals said. For some, that’s art. For many people, it’s connection with others, whether family, Alcoholics Anonymous or a church group. It can be training for a 5K, cooking or getting a pet.

Carol Hopwood, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker who owns Lasting Change Counseling in Bend, said when it comes to depression, there is no magic bullet that’s going to cure someone. Rather, people should have multiple tools they turn to.

Hopwood often has clients maintain weekly calendars with things they will focus on doing each day, whether that’s reserving time for contemplation, physical movement, connecting with others, being creative or simply staying hydrated.

Bakker said she intends to keep using other tools she’s found helpful with managing her depression. She started a new depression medication six weeks ago and plans to stick with it. In the past, she would quit medications if they didn’t work instantly or if there were side effects. She also aspires to take up exercise.

“I don’t believe that we have medications right now where one can just medicate and then achieve remission,” she said. “I think it’s multifaceted and one must reevaluate one’s work and life and relationships and passions.”

—Reporter: 541-383-0304,