Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Healing Arts

Artist Victor Delfin's studio, Barranco Peru.

The healing power of art is by no means a new concept. It's long been understood that visual art, music, dance and performance art can have a therapeutic effect on people (J. Public Health). After all it only takes a few minutes for your favourite piece of music to wash away the ravages of a long hard day. But these days art goes way beyond being just a companion to a glass of wine or cup of tea in soothing the souls of the weary.

Art is a medical intervention. There are two quite distinct streams.

One is Art Therapy in which a mental health professional (known as an art therapist) uses an artistic medium for a psychotherapeutic purpose. They use art to assess, treat, and evaluate a patient and to achieve a psychotherapeutic goal (Arts in Medicine).

The other is Art in Medicine in which a professional artist (e.g. painter, sculptor, photographer, musician) helps individuals make art for an artistic purpose. They are there to facilitate the creative process and help the client to produce a work of art. The act of making art can improve people's mental, emotional and physical health which is why it's considered a medical intervention  (Arts in Medicine). 

Average everyday people practice or view art - whether it be singing, dancing, painting, or quilting - to feel better. It's been understood by many cultures for centuries that practicing art is a healthy experience that is part of a well-rounded life. But in recent years medical research has performed studies and collected evidence to prove the benefits. The results are simply fascinating.

It likely won't surprise you that hundreds of research studies have shown that people with chronic illness or terminal diseases display measurable improvement in their sense of well-being, reductions in stress, and reduced depression when they are exposed to an art intervention (J. Public Health, Society for Arts in Healthcare).  For example visual art and live or taped music reduces anxiety and depression in patients receiving chemotherapy and also works as an adjuvant to prevent side effects from the treatments (Arts Council of England).

But what I find compelling is that researchers have collected evidence of physical and cellular changes in patients after an artistic intervention. There are now massive databases of research providing evidence of this (Society for Arts in Healthcare). Here I will list just a few of the outcomes:

  • Singing releases substances in the body that work as natural pain-killers (NIH).  
  • When stroke patients "sing their rehab" rather than speak it they recover faster (NIH). 
  • Dance improves mobility in people with Parkinson's disease & fibromyalgia (Christensen). 
  • Exposure to visual art can evoke memories in patients with Alzheimer's disease (Christensen).
  • Listening to music raises the level of molecules important for fighting infection (NIH). 
  • Listening to music improves the recovery of memory and focused attention in stroke patients (NIH). 
  • Patients with HIV saw decreased viral loads and improved CD4 and lymphocyte counts when they wrote about personal and emotional topics for 30 minutes, four days a week (J. Psychomatic Med)
  • Storytelling increases lung function in asthma patients and reduces symptoms & doctor visits (Christensen).
  • Music used in cardiovascular units decreases vital sign readings (blood pressure, heart rate, myocardial demand) (Arts Council of England).
  • Music used in neonatal intensive care units improves clinical outcomes and significantly reduces patient length of stay in the hospital (Arts Council of England).
  • Regularly playing a didgeridoo (Australian Aboriginal instrument) decreases apneic episodes in people with sleep apnea (Christensen).

Equally astounding to me is that art intervention can improve the performance of health care providers and the health care environment. Exposure to the arts enhances surgeons mental task performance and neurosurgeons demonstrate improved observational and three-dimensional perception skills. Nurses show increased awareness in dealing with illness and bereavement (Arts & Health Australia, Arts Council of England). Operating environments, hospital units, waiting rooms and clinics are less stressful for patients once music or visual art is introduced (Arts & Health Australia, Arts Council of England). 

It's not surprising that health care facilities around the world have begun to introduce art into their environments including Ontario's own Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and their Ceiling Tile Art project now in operation for nearly 15 years (Sunnybrook). The University of Florida has partnered with the School of Fine Arts and Shands Hospital to create the Arts in Medicine Centre where they provide care using the arts in both their environment and their practice (Shands + Univ. Florida) .  They have "artists in residence" who are paid members of the team who work with patients. 

So what are the implications of all of this? Do we wait to be diagnosed with an illness before we try that pottery class? Take up mosaic making after retirement? Leave art to the professionals and watch TV instead? No I don't think so. 

Trying your hand at some form of art shouldn't be reserved for professional artists or relegated to the "bucket list". Being creative is part of a healthy life and we should use art as a way to sustain good health and prevent illness. It is completely irrelevant if the end product that you make is "good". It's the process of creating that provides benefit. Engaging in creative activity is arguably as important to health as nutrition and exercise.

I come from a family and community of artists. It can be intimidating, to say the least, to sign up for an art class when I'm surrounded by so much incredible and professional talent. Personally I'm famous for my stick-people anatomy drawings on clinic table paper and the best audience for my singing is DingoDave who doesn't mind kitchen covers of Serena Ryder tunes.

But I'm committed to both surrounding myself with art and participating in creative ventures. Next month I'm signed up for a soap-making course and a wall mosaic workshop. I have no idea if my blood pressure will come down or if my immune cell counts will go up. But I know I'll have fun and I'll be fully engaged by the process. As far as I'm concerned that's time and money well spent.

I hear from a lot of people that they "don't have time" for things like art, exercise, and healthy eating. I like what James Clear has to say about this:
In our always–on, always–connected world of television, social media, and on–demand everything, it can be stupidly easy to spend your entire day consuming information and simply responding to all of the inputs that bombard your life. Art offers an outlet and a release from all of that... Produce something. Express yourself in some way. As long as you contribute rather than consume, anything you do can be a work of art (James Clear).
If you are thinking about using art for illness prevention or disease treatment makes little difference. Get out and try things whether that be something you do on your own or as part of a formal class (see links below to classes in Northumberland). If someone in your life gets sick encourage them to continue creative activity that they participate in. Sometimes we tell people to rest, cut their commitments, and reduce all activity. Recognize creative work for it's benefits and help your loved person to keep it up.

Have a look at your environment at home and work. Surround yourself with art either made by you or by others. Don't reserve your "good art" for the living room. Put it where you will see it when you wake up. Put it in your garden, your office, maybe even your car. If you work in a healthcare facility consider having art in the care environment and utilizing art in your practice. 

And the arts industry? Support it. Professional artists are leaders in expression, reflection, documentation, and teaching. They are often political activists who provide invaluable critical thought and social commentary. They serve as the cultural barometers of our time. Acknowledge the role they play in society and in our health and advocate that governments fund artists and the arts industry with the money derived from our tax dollars. And urge school boards to include the arts in curriculums for all ages. As Yo-Yo Ma so succinctly states: "the most proficient way to teach the values of collaboration, flexibility, imagination and innovation -- all skill sets needed in today's world -- is through the performing arts. If you have these tools, you can do well in any field from software engineering to the biosciences." (Yo-Yo Ma).

DingoDave singing along with Serena Ryder.

Thanks for reading Getting Healthy With NP Sam. Comments welcome - please click the pencil icon below. 

Some Local Workshop & Class Resources in Northumberland:
Fleming College/Haliburton School of the Arts - Peterborough, Cobourg, Lindsey, Haliburton
Precious metal clay jewelry workshops with Elizabeth Kiser - Port Hope
Nia (Dance fused with martial arts) with Elizabeth Kiser - Port Hope
Mosaic workshops with Anja Hertle - Grafton
Frantic Farms Pottery Classes with Monica Johnston - Warkworth
The Abundance Project workshops - Warkworth
Zumba (Latin dancing) Classes with Heather Owen - Campbellford

Health Benefits of Creativity (James Clear)
How the arts affect your health (NIH-National Institutes of Health)
Effects of written emotional expression on immune function in patients with HIV (Journal of Psychomatic Med)
Connection between art, healing, and public health (Journal of Public Health)
Arts & Health Australia
Arts in health: a review of medical literature (Arts Council England)
Art for health (NHS Health Development Agency)
Art & Health (A New Days Work)
Centre for Arts in Medicine (University of Florida)
Arts in Medicine (Shands Hospital + University of Florida)
Arts in Healthcare Research Directory (Society for Arts in Healthcare)
Mural Program fights graffiti with art (Ottawa Citizen)
Behind the cello: the role of arts, creativity, and the edges of life (YoYo Ma in The World Post)
Why we need the arts in medicine (Gary Christensen - Minnesota Medicine)
Ceiling Tile Art Project (Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre)
Victor Delfin

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