The art of healing

Monday, June 23, 2014 - 9:55am

By Charmaine Gaudet

The light-filled art room of the Abbie J. Lane Building at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax is charged with creativity. Art made by patients covers the walls and on the paint-splattered table, an array of art materials invites play and exploration.

“Art therapy can play a major role in an individual’s recovery from mental illness,” said Tara Harnish, a recreation therapy associate with Capital Health. Harnish facilitates the weekly inpatient art group for acute care patients. 

“Patients tell us that the program provides many benefits including relaxation, opportunities for socialization and a resource for them after discharge.”

Art is part of Capital Health’s recreation therapy for mental health program. Regular art sessions are held at several locations by staff and by artists in the community who volunteer for the program.

Art groups are offered for patients at every stage of recovery. Inpatients receive an assessment or screen by recreation therapy staff and through this initial interview, patients can determine if art would be helpful in their recovery. For outpatients, art programs are available through self-referral and are open to anyone receiving mental health services in Capital Health.

Patient feedback consistently speaks to art therapy’s profound impact.

“I come to the art group so I can calm my brain, meet good people and rebuild my shattered self,” wrote one patient.

“Everyone has art inside them to express and share,” wrote another. “This group helps to open the opportunity for art to people who might not otherwise engage and benefit from the process of creating art.”

Starr Dobson, CEO of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia, said she appreciates the importance of art therapy in healing. The foundation is committed to supporting creative programs for patients at Capital Health, contributing $7,000 last year. Recently, Donson joined an art therapy class at the Abbie J. Lane to see first hand how beneficial these programs can be.

“Within five minutes, wonderful conversations started among the people in the room. People were really connecting about what was important to them,” she said. “In addition to encouraging creative expression, art therapy gives people a comfortable, safe environment for personal expression.”

Another passionate advocate of the role of art and creativity in healing is Dr. Stan Kutcher, a psychiatrist and Sun Life Chair in Adolescent Mental Health. 

“Art, as creative expression, is part of the human condition. It should be integrated as part of the therapeutic approach as one of all the components we know are essential to being human,” Dr. Kutcher said during a recent panel discussion exploring art, mental health and recovery. Dobson was also part of the panel. Organized by Teenmentalhealth.org and held at the Nova Scotia Community College Waterfront Campus, the event drew a packed crowd eager to share their stories about creativity and healing.

“In therapy we are so focused on doing things to people that we don’t always allow them to be active participants in their healing through art, music, diet and exercise,” said Dr. Kutcher. “We know all of these things are essential to mental health…Integrating art programs into therapy doesn’t cost much but has an enormous impact.”

Dobson offered a recent insight about from a woman participating in art therapy.

“She told me that as a patient with a mental illness so much of her focus was on losing ‘bad things’ that stood in the way of her becoming whole again. Art therapy, on the other hand, gave her something. She said, ‘I get to bring this home with me.’”

For more information visit Recreation Therapy - Mental Health visit.