Group art therapy provides support and healing

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Since the late 1940s, art therapy has been part of the multi-disciplinary team approach in hospitals in North America. It has been used very effectively in such areas as children’s hospitals, departments of psychiatry, eating disorders clinics, rehabilitation centers, outpatient dialysis settings and chemotherapy areas.

In 1997 while Gerry Pencer, a distinguished Canadian entrepreneur was struggling with the treatment of a malignant brain tumor at Princess Margaret Hospital he and his wife Nancy Pencer made a gift to the hospital of the Gerry and Nancy Pencer Brain Tumor Centre where individuals diagnosed with brain tumors could come not only for medical help but also for comfort and support through a variety of activities supported by The Gerry & Nancy Pencer Brain Trust.

The decision to establish the art therapy program in the center was made by a staff and patient advisory committee. Group art therapy is one of the on-going programs that provide its participants a good deal of support through the difficult time of living with a brain tumor.

The program began in 1999 as part of the multi-disciplinary team approach at the center. Participants were referred by the other professionals on the team.

The members found comfort and support in the homogeneous nature of the group. Each individual was able to find a commonality in his/her experience of diagnosis, symptoms, treatment, and the impact of the illness on daily routines.

Changes in life style could be devastating. Suddenly one was confronted by his/her mortality, limitations in capabilities, frightening medical procedures and physical decline.

In the group people commented on how catastrophic the diagnosis was on their lives. Many of the images conveyed the devastation of the diagnosis. T drew her brain tumor – a black octopus-like creature. Then she drew a crowd of little people eating the tumor and destroying it. T is on the bottom of the picture preoccupied with the cycle of diagnosis and treatment, hoping for the best. Her heart is also focused on her family. T felt that she was able to acknowledge the cancer on an emotional level for the first time through sharing this picture with the group.The patients felt that the others were able to respond with great understanding to their daily challenges while the group was able to contain overwhelming feelings of anxiety, depression, helplessness and hopelessness. Their illness could overwhelm their family and friends so they were reluctant to further burden their caretakers. They felt that the group provided a safe environment to express whatever was on their minds, and whatever feelings they had.

The images expressed the impact of their illness that words could not adequately describe. The artwork facilitated self-expression and group participation. The art therapy group was a place where the members felt accepted while experiencing reduction of their stress through the art expression as well as the group process. For those members of the group who had cognitive impairments, the art activity helped them focus more effectively during the session and enhanced their verbal communication.

Often individuals cannot deal directly with painful and threatening topics. Symbolic artistic expression makes very threatening issues more manageable. T’s next picture was originally about a book report that her daughter had completed. The book was about a tree house that some children had discovered that allowed them to travel back in time. In this picture T draws herself heading for the tree house to get away from the tyrannosaurus. A bird protects her from the primitive animal. T realized that the tyrannosaurus was the cancer that she was fleeing from while she was being protected by the bird.

Each member has to face the challenge of coping with an uncertain future and the gravity of his/her illness. G created a picture which was described as a little squirrel in the outdoors with a cloud on the horizon. When she shared the picture with the group she realized that the painting was dealing with her unsure future. The cloud on the horizon is her cancer. She is the little squirrel. “I accept that I have a tumor but you really don’t know – you don’t know how long you have.”

The intensity of colors often enhances non-verbal communication. At first K wanted to use all the bright colors. She found them positive. Then she added little cross-out marks. When she talked about the painting with the group, she wondered if she was saying, “Go away cancer.” The bright colors are hopeful – telling the cancer to go away.

The participants of the group found it helpful to paint and draw while they were talking about how they coped with the challenges they faced, whether it was about their altered life style or the course of their treatment.

The art and group process contained many of the frightening and painful feelings. The images created offered gentle insight and self-reflection.

Besides the therapeutic benefit of participating in a group, members found creating works of art without concern for aesthetic considerations to be very pleasurable and relaxing.