Abstract Healing: Art Therapy for Patients with Chronic Conditions

Georgia Weston had her first panic attack at age 14. “My dad handed me a pencil and said, ‘start drawing.’ ”

She remembered feeling confused at first. “Having a panic attack feels like being in a tornado,” Weston said. “But once I put pen to paper, I found a way out.” 

Almost 10 years later, Weston helps other teens with chronic pain discover the healing power of art therapy as a clinician and master’s student in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work

Weston worked with fellow students Sydney Siegel and Emily Frumkin to create Art Rx, a symposium where health care experts explored science-based evidence of art modalities and their vast, varied contributions to patients’ treatment and healing.

“We wanted to encourage medical professionals to see art therapy as a valid supplement to the work they’re already doing with their patients,” Weston said of the founding members, who hosted the event at the USC Keck School of Medicine on April 7.

What Is Art Therapy?

According to the American Art Therapy Association, “art therapy is an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.”

“It’s less about the result and more about the process of getting there,” Weston said.

Art therapy can take shape through a variety of media, from common modalities like drawing, dancing or singing, as well as more niche interests like knitting, cooking or meditation. Patients need no prior artistic experience to participate, but a desire to explore one’s own creativity can prove helpful when choosing a medium of art to practice.

How Does Art Benefit Patients with Chronic Conditions?

It is widely understood that the intersection of physical and mental health is complicated. Managing chronic physical symptoms for months — even years — leaves patients vulnerable to developing depression, anxiety, and other emotional and mental health issues that exacerbate physical symptoms of health complications.

A variety of studies reviewed in the American Journal of Public Health show that art therapy has increasing benefits for patients managing conditions for long periods of time, including post-traumatic stress disorderchronic pain, cancer and other chronic illnesses:

  • Promotes stress relief and emotional resilience
  • Supports cognitive and motor functions
  • Reduces feelings of anxiety, pain or depression
  • Encourages creative self-expression through nonverbal communication
  • Inspires human connection and self-discovery
  • Enhances independence and confidence in one’s own abilities

“There’s a transformative power that comes from moving through music and imagery.”

— Linda Berghoff, Dancing Through Parkinson’s teacher

The beauty of art therapy, according to Siegel, is that anyone can do it. However, it’s important to find the right medium, which may take time and experimentation. Working with an art therapist or a clinician can help patients discover which creative modalities resonate with them.

Among the panelists at Art Rx was Linda Berghoff, who brought the organization Dancing Through Parkinson’s to Los Angeles after she discovered the transformative power of dance in her own journey following her Parkinson’s diagnosis in New York.

“Something happens when you dance — you forget about all the things that bother you during the day. You feel relieved by the end of the class,” she said. “There’s a transformative power that comes from moving through music and imagery.”

Berghoff now orchestrates classes taught by professional dancers for any seniors interested in practicing dance — not just those who are managing chronic conditions. The students range in age from 60 to 90 years old, which she said reinforces the idea that dance can be for anyone.

While dance is a common creative outlet, it’s not always ideal for patients whose conditions have resulted in decreased physical mobility, many of whom spend weeks and months in a hospital bed.

Carol Caparosa, the founder of Project Knitwell, spends time teaching immobile patients how to knit. With the financial help of private donors and organizations like the Ronald McDonald House, volunteers visit patients at several hospitals in Washington, D.C.

Most often, Caparosa works with new moms in the neonatal intensive care unit who find purpose and independence in the creation of small projects like scarves and baby hats.

“There’s a feeling of powerlessness when you aren’t able to hold your child,” Caparosa said, who found comfort in her knitting practice during her own child’s hospitalization. “Knitting is therapeutic because it’s rhythmic, but it also gives you this sense of accomplishment at a time when everything else is out of your control. You can finish a pair of booties for your baby and feel like you really contributed something positive.”

How Can Providers Incorporate Art into Treatment?

Art therapy is not meant to replace standard treatment plans, but rather supplement them. Clinicians can incorporate art therapy by shared decision-making with the patient if they feel it could be beneficial. For example, because nurse practitioners (NPs) are trained to provide holistic care, art therapy provides a venue to care for the whole patient, physically and mentally.

According to Weston, artistic mastery isn’t required for providers to begin exploring art therapy with their patients. “You don’t have to have artistic experience. You have to be able to do the research and be willing to find what works for your patient,” she said.

However, it is important to consult with an art therapist, social worker or clinician who has experience with art as a healing modality. An art therapist is a clinically trained professional who engages medical or mental health patients in active art-making. Art therapists work in hospitals, schools, psychiatric clinics, social work institutions or community organizations.

Many patients managing chronic illnesses are accustomed to receiving care from a team of providers, so coordination with all parties involved can lead to an optimal route for integrating art into treatment.

Whether working one-on-one or with a team, “providers should also be able to describe to patients what the art process may ignite emotionally and provide a safe space for processing,” Frumkin said. Especially for providers who are new to art therapy, Siegel, Frumkin and Weston recommend that clinicians keep the following strategies in mind when looking to incorporate creative therapies into patient treatment plans: 

Get familiar with the resources: Look at Pinterest and talk to artists and art therapists who work in clinics and hospitals.

Work with patients: In order to find the right medium, providers can ask patients about an artistic background they’d like to draw upon or opportunities they’d like to explore. NPs have the unique opportunity to build relationships with patients who might spend less time with other providers on a care team.

Become an advocate for arts programs: While working in a hospital or clinical setting, providers can discuss the importance of arts programs with other providers and administrators. Beyond clinical walls, advocating at the community or policy level can raise awareness about the need for arts programs while leveraging health care experience and expertise.

Maintain patient safety: “Regardless of the medium, clinicians should always have a basic understanding of the medical status of their patients; clinicians should feel prepared to both maintain the safety of their patients and answer questions that arise,” Frumkin said. In the case that a clinician can’t answer a question regarding artistic healing, it’s helpful to know the appropriate resources that are available to patients for their further exploration of the art form.

For more opportunities to explore art therapy, visit the Art Rx site to find upcoming workshops at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Citation for this content: Nursing@USC, the online FNP program from the University of Southern California