Capital Health’s art therapy program gives patients a therapeutic canvas

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When Jack Sharp lost both of his arms in an industrial accident last summer, he never imagined he’d be painting artistic masterpieces six months later.

The double-arm amputee is now one of many patients at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton taking part in a unique art therapy program.

The recreation therapy department at the Glenrose has used art therapy for many years. Art can provide the opportunity to regain or develop creative self-expression skills through a variety of media. Successful creative experiences are offered to promote relaxation, self-confidence, stress management, pain management and social interaction. Participants also gain information on equipment and materials, proper body positioning, personal benefits and community resources.

“It’s sort of like social therapy. It teaches me things that I never knew I could do before,” notes Sharp, who had never painted prior to his accident. “I didn’t even paint my own house back then.”

For Sharp, therapy has never been so colourful. Only weeks ago, one of his original blow paintings – an acrylic painting technique using a straw and good set of lungs – fetched $3,000 at an auction benefiting the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation.

“It gives our patients something to look positively upon and gain self-confidence through,” says Cathy Fagnan, the Glenrose’s Manager of Recreation Therapy, Volunteer Services and Pastoral Care. “So much of their rehabilitation is their resurgence in motivation. Art therapy provides them with something to work for, something to value.”

Fagnan says that for the most part art therapy is focused on the emotional and mental components, but some patients, like Sharp, have seen other functional gains.

“Blow art really enhances my breathing and lung capacity,” says Sharp. “It’s part of my life now and I look forward to continuing my linkages with the Glenrose.”

Art therapy is currently available to most patient groups at the Glenrose. In-patients, outpatients and day patients can all benefit from involvement in art therapy. Therapy sessions are delivered in both group and individual settings. A variety of media and techniques are used. Some enjoy and benefit from watercolors while others focus on ceramics or stained glass work.

The Art Skill group offered to outpatients in the Brain Injury or Stroke Programs has been one of the most successful endeavours in Art Therapy at the Glenrose. One of the goals of recreation therapy is to ensure patients have ongoing community opportunities to enable them to continue progressing along with maintaining quality of life. With ongoing interests in art developed through the Art Skill Group, past patients of the Glenrose have created the Alberta Artists with Brain Injury Society.

Whether it is gaining new skills along with increased self-confidence or re-awakening past interests, art therapy can be a way to help people persevere, forget about their problems, and increase their self-worth.