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Art Therapy: Creating a therapeutic outlet for patients and their families

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A hospital is a place that promotes treatment, healing and recovery. But oftentimes, being in an unfamiliar environment can cause stress and anxiety for patients and their families. Much of this anxiety stems from the fear of the unknown—How will I feel after my treatment? Will I be in pain? How long will I stay in the hospital? How can I better cope with my illness?

As The Faris Foundation Art Therapist at Texas Children’s Cancer and Hematology Centers®, I see our patients’ resiliency, courage and bravery every day. Through art therapy, I help our patients explore and process their emotions, boost their self-esteem, and cope and manage their stress and anxiety.

Art therapy allows me to help our patients build connections and positive memories with others during these tough times. By fostering connections with other patients and staff, children can begin to associate the hospital environment, not as a scary place, but as a place of healing surrounded by people who care about them.

What is an art therapist?

An art therapist integrates psychotherapeutic techniques with the creative process to enhance mental, physical, and emotional wellness. During an art therapy session with a patient, I use many different techniques such as drawing, painting, and coloring. The patient and I look at their artwork to see how it relates to them. By exploring the artwork together, we can identify themes and conflicts that may affect their thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Art therapy is about self-expression for the patient and their family.

Unlike an art class that focuses on mastering aesthetics and technique, patients do not need artistic ability to engage in art therapy. The work created in art therapy is treated as an extension of the individual. Often, children have trouble expressing themselves because their vocabulary and language skills are still developing. Art becomes a channel of communication when words cannot be expressed. As an art therapist, I don’t interpret their artwork but instead help the creator—the patient or their family—find their own personal meaning.

How does art therapy help?

During treatment, many children build close relationships with other patients to support each other during times of grief and sadness. Recently, I met a patient who was grieving the loss of a friend and fellow patient. When I entered her room for an art therapy session, she didn’t want to talk to anyone. I explained to her that she didn’t have to talk and instead, gave her art materials. She began drawing though I could not see what she was drawing because she physically distanced herself from me.

We engaged in creative processing; she created her own art and I created my art based on my perception of what she was feeling. Toward the end of our session, I shared my artwork with her, and her jaw dropped in amazement when she saw it. We noticed there were several similar patterns and the imagery looked almost the same. The patient then said, “You get me!” As an art therapist, establishing this connection is very fulfilling,

Who participates in the art therapy experience?

Patients are not the only ones who engage in art therapy. I also facilitate sessions with family members who are having difficulty coping with their loved one’s illness. This could be siblings who are having trouble grasping why their brother or sister is in the hospital or parents struggling with the challenges of having a child with cancer. Sometimes, our art therapy sessions include staff participation where a staff member, and a patient and/or their family members take part in art therapy to build positive connections and rapport with each other, instilling hope and personal transformation.

Reflections from my journey

There are many people who ask me why I selected art therapy as my career path. Simply put, art therapy combines my passion for art, my clinical work, and my desire to help others. As I learned more about this field, I could not imagine a more fitting career path.

Since joining Texas Children’s Cancer and Hematology Centers in June 2020, I have found many rewarding aspects about my job. Aside from building relationships and honoring our patients’ legacy through their artwork, I get the privilege of being part of their healing journey.

When I see patients smile or hear them say “thank you,” after an art therapy session, I know that I have created a positive impact in their young, courageous lives; for that I am so grateful. As much as I have enriched their lives, they have enriched my life too.

Click here to learn more about art therapy at Texas Children’s Hospital and click here to learn more about Texas Children’s Cancer and Hematology Centers, one of the largest and top-ranked pediatric cancer and hematology centers in the United States.