Cartooning as Catharsis: How the Process of Creating Comics Helps Relieve Psychological Stress

Comic books are an enjoyable form of leisure and entertainment, and, as we discuss on our podcast and this blog, they are an effective form of dispensing knowledge. But the process of creating comics is proving to be a therapeutic form of self-expression as well.

A program in Vermont is helping veterans create comics to process the trauma of war. The local VA medical center in White River Junction has partnered with the Center for Cartoon Studies to offer classes and seminars on comics creation. At least one vet is saying the program is helping her move away forward.

“It was scary to put myself out there, because I was vulnerable,” Frazzetta told NECN. “But it definitely helped me move past that moment in time, where I could go on and look to the future, and not be so stuck with the war.”

In Canada, comic book artists are teaming up with Syrian refugees to tell their stories in graphic art form. The project hopes to educate the public as well as provide an outlet for refugees. Mohammed Alsaleh is one such refugee. He was studying medicine when the Arab Spring broke out in 2011. He was arrested for filming the pro-democracy protests in Syria.

“I think it’s very important to, you know, share my story, other immigrants to share their stories as well,” Mohammed Alsaleh told PBS News Hour. “In order to demonstrate we have this beautiful place because we welcome others, because we are the positive example in a — in a very bad world.”

In Philadelphia, a free class for Mexican immigrants is helping children address their fears through the comics medium. The kids report they sleep better and are less afraid after attending the two hour workshop. NPR produced an excellent video on the program, embedded below:

Graham Shaw teaches people who have suffered a stroke how to draw. Sometimes, the patients are learning to draw with their previously non-dominant hand. He teaches them simple, cartoon-style drawings that can be used to depict people and even emotions. The act of drawing inspires confidence in patients who have suffered a great loss.

Cancer patients have also taken to comics to help handle the stress of their illness. Teva Harrison told the story of her breast cancer diagnosis in her memoir In Between Days.

“I started drawing to deal with the depression,” Harrison told The Globe and Mail. “On focusing on something in front of me, and drawing my experience of living with cancer and new experiences related to being sick.”

Creating comics is not just a stress release, but also a distraction from the intensity of a cancer patient’s current hardship. Matt Freedman reflected on pre-cancerous events in his book Relatively Indolent But Relentless: A Cancer Treatment Journal in order to provide context, but the process offered relief as well.

“Often in the book when I leave the narrative to recount personal memories it is because I want to give some context to the story of treatment,” Freedman told The Atlantic. “Often, though, it was a relief to escape from the present into an old story, so the line between the calculated and the spontaneous is blurry and was crossed many times in both directions.”

There’s even a clinical trial being conducted on comics creation as art therapy for cancer patients and caregivers. It’s a small study, so I’m rooting for it to be successful enough to encourage larger studies after completion.

In the meantime, anecdotes suggest that comics creation can be a worthwhile form of art therapy. If you’d like to try it for yourself, check out a class or workshop locally or at a comic convention. Also, consult with a mental health professional to see if this is a process that could be good for you.

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