Carrie Norris, University of Southern Mississippi
Innovation: The Art and Wellness Initiative (AWI)


Problem Statement:

America is suffering from a mental health crisis. An estimated 44.7 million adults experience mental illness in a given year.[1] Half of the nation believes they have had or currently have a mental health condition, but less than 2 in 5 have been able to receive treatment.[2] Additionally, over the past twenty years, the number of Americans treated for depression has tripled.[3] Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death, and the second leading cause of death among ages 10–34.[4]

These statistics are daunting, but we are not lacking solutions. Research indicates that creativity can decrease anxiety, stress, and mood disturbances. Art-making is an effective tool for increasing self-awareness, caring for self, and improving overall well-being. While art therapy is a mental health profession provided by master-level clinicians, libraries can also play a role in the mental health solution. As a natural center of community engagement, libraries can support creative acts while promoting self-care and wellness and educating patrons about the connection between physical, emotional, and spiritual health.


“One way public libraries can play a role in the mental health solution is by participating in the Art and Wellness Initiative (AWI). The AWI consists of three components that assist libraries in encouraging personal wellness: 1. a series of weekly workshops, 2. intermingled passive programs, and 3. an extended public display. While the following description of AWI is specifically designed for adults, the AWI may also be adapted to serve different age groups (i.e. children, teens, and the elderly). The AWI can also be used as a library outreach service. For example, public libraries could partner with schools, nursing homes, and jails to reach populations who may not have access to a library’s physical location.

Through a series of weekly workshops, the first AWI component, adults are invited to engage in various forms of therapeutic art interventions as participants explore the importance of self-care. During the workshops, participants will be introduced to mental health tools such as the Wellness Wheel which identifies the following categories of personal wellness: physical, social, spiritual, emotional, environmental, financial, intellectual, and occupational.[5] The workshops address the need for holistic self-care while allowing participants to explore these elements of the self in art directives. For example, they may create individualized wellness wheels, depicting components that seem most meaningful or helpful to their current situation. Another useful prompt utilizes books weeded from the library collection. In this altered book directive, participants may cut, highlight, paint, and collage the original book text, altering the meaning to tell their own story of pursuing wellness. Additionally, AWI attendees could illustrate important components of their self-care on small square paper tiles that are eventually tessellated to create a collage of communal wellness.

The second component of the AWI involves public libraries offering passive programs in which materials from the previous week’s workshop are shared with the general public. Supplies and directions, along with a place to work, are provided to library visitors. Library visitors are able to engage in the same healing art directives in a self-guided environment and are also able to take home wellness resource handouts.

Participants of the workshops and passive programs will have the opportunity to select pieces of their art to share with the community. This artwork will be featured as a component of the AWI display. An AWI display should be exhibited in the library’s space, another public community space, or both to compliment the programming aspect of this initiative. This AWI display, the third component of the initiative, acts as a means to share information with the general public. In addition to showcasing artwork from AWI program participants, the AWI display consists of information presenting the importance of self-care and how art can play a therapeutic role in personal wellness. The AWI display incorporates promotional resource materials, such as a bookmark, that direct people to more information about personal wellness, healing art practices, and ways to find local mental health professionals. The AWI display also provides a suggested reading list which could include tips on how the listed titles can be accessed (i.e. through the library’s physical collection).

The Art and Wellness Initiative provides the public with information and tools to encourage self-care, equips people to incorporate art-making into their personal wellness plan, and provides art directives as a means of envisioning total wellness. Public libraries are not alone in their efforts to play a role in the mental health solution, though; public libraries can offer the AWI displays and programs with support from local mental health organizations as well as art therapists. Collaboration with these professionals and promotion of positive mental health will allow public libraries to better serve their communities in a meaningful way.

  1. “Mental Illness,” NIMH,
  2. “Survey Finds that Americans Value Mental Health and Physical Health Equally,” ADAA,
  3.  Bessel van der Kolk, “Revolutions in Understanding Mind and Brain,” in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma (New York: Viking Penguin, 2014), 22-38.
  4. “Suicide,” NIMH,
  5. “