Let’s talk about art and mental health…
Paint brushes and IV tubes may not seem to have much in common, but the arts are increasingly touted as a form of healing that can be as relevant to a patient’s well-being as medication. And nearly half the health care institutions in the U.S. have implemented arts programs.
Laura Miller, a former oncology nurse who lives in Toledo, Ohio, discovered the healing power of the arts firsthand. A year and a half after donating one of her kidneys to her brother, Miller was diagnosed with cancer in her other kidney. After the initial shock of her diagnosis, she turned to an art form that she had been practicing since childhood: painting.
Growing up in Toledo, Miller attended classes at the Toledo Museum of Art, learning to make the signature brightly-colored watercolor paintings that dot her personal website.
As a cancer patient, painting became indispensable to Miller’s recovery. “It gave me a big distraction,” Miller says. “You can’t always control what’s going on in your body, but you can control what’s going on in your journal or on your canvas.”
Apart from empowering patients, Miller says that practicing an art form while sick may improve certain symptoms – like lowering blood pressure. It also fulfills a patients’ instinctive need to express their feelings about what is going on in their bodies.
Evidence That Art Heals
Studies have shown that painting and drawing can relieve pain in pediatric cancer patients and that dementia patients who practice music may improve their memory. Preliminary research on the potential economic benefits of hospitals’ arts programs shows that participating patients have a lower readmission rate and are more compliant with taking their medications.
Arts programs may also improve the hospital’s working environment: Studies have shown that nurses report less stress when patients are involved in art projects. “I think medicine is starting to clue in on this,” Miller says.
According to a 2009 report by the Global Alliance for Arts and Health, 45 percent of the country’s health care institutions (mostly hospitals) have art programs – predominantly through art displays and performances, bedside activities, art carts, and healing gardens.
The country’s first programs began in the 1970s and 1980s – at academic medical centers such as Duke and the University of Michigan. Jill Sonke, one of the authors of the Global Alliance report, says their rise coincided with the recognition of holistic medicine.
“The arts went along with that so perfectly,” says Sonke, who directs the Arts in Medicine Program at the University of Florida, one of the country’s first programs.
Also a professional dancer, Sonke runs a UF program called Dance for Life, in which patients with neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease improve their mobility and balance.
Sonke is careful to distinguish between art therapists and artists working in hospitals. “Art therapists are mental health professionals who use the arts to assess and address patients’ therapeutic goals,” she says. “Professional artists are not clinicians; they partner with caregivers to help meet clinical goals.”
For patients, working with artists is often relaxing and enjoyable, she says. “It gives patients a deep sense of caring that someone would spend time attending to them as a human being.”
Timing is Key
The key, Miller says, is participating in arts programs at the right time. For her, that meant four months after her diagnosis.
“During the first four months, nothing – not even art – can get you through. It’s just pure grit, prayer, and family,” she says. “I just started slowly trying to find a way to feel better.”
To other patients, Miller advises: “Find your muse first. Oftentimes people start journaling or keeping visual diaries,” she says. “One of the other things I like to do is get in the frame of mind: Listen to music you enjoy, burn scented candles, keep flowers – whatever it is that you can enjoy – a cup of tea. It should be a bit of a ritual as well.”
Some patients may naturally want to paint or write about their illness; others will escape it.
“I always create very joyfully, vibrant art,” Miller says. “It was the one space where I could create the world that I wanted to create.”
As a caregiver to her sister, who was recently diagnosed with leukemia, Miller has found herself once again turning to painting. She asked herself, “’How am I going to get through this?’” Miller says. “I took my art supplies. I painted my watercolors.”
As for her sister, Miller calls her a “scrapbooker.” But it’s too soon for her to be creative, Miller adds. At this point, “just getting through each hour is a challenge.”
Turning Hospitals into Museums
Miller’s sister is a patient at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, where Miller quickly discovered a fertile environment for the arts. “They give you headphones and you can take a walking tour of the hospital,” she says.
The clinic’s 27 locations throughout the world house some 5,000 pieces of art, with ambitions, according to its CEO, of becoming like the Museum of Modern Art. Tours of the collection are just one of the programs at the Arts and Medicine Institute, which was established in 2008 and includes bedside art and music therapy for patients as well.
Iva Fattorini, chair of the Clinic’s Global Arts and Medicine Institute, says the connection between arts and medicine has ancient roots – but that it’s been lost over time. “We believe that sometimes due to a very rapid development of technology, the connection between arts and humanities and medicine was lost … so in a way the hospital has lost its soul,” Fattorini says. “We want to restore that connection.”
“The arts create this communication channel,” she continues. “The hospital becomes home to some people. What do we actually do to address the emotional needs of people living in that hospital? How do we change their state of mind and perception of the hospital?”
Transforming hospitals from places of fear and anxiety into inspiring places is a tall order, but already Fattorini cites some encouraging evidence: The clinic currently provides more than 200 hours of art and music therapy per week, but the demand is five times that, she says. Music therapists, for example, teach stroke patients how to speak, while art therapists and creative writers work closely with pediatric patients. The hospital also hosts about 400 live musical performances per year.
Just like art itself, the healing potential of the arts has no boundaries, Fattorini says.
Fattorini has worked at getting arts into hospitals throughout the world and is now in part based in Abu Dhabi, where a branch of the Cleveland Clinic is set to open next year – with its own arts in medicine program. “I want to Arabize this concept so it can serve the community,” Fattorini says.
“What we know is that art is not a commodity; it’s really a necessity,” she continues. “It’s really about infusing some beauty and spiritual values in the arts to people whose spirits needs to be uplifted. If good emotions and energy are transmitted through good art, it doesn’t matter where (patients) are, or who they are. It does help.”