More studies needed to measure benefits of creative art therapy

May 1, 2010

About half of healthcare institutions in the United States provide art therapy services, with positive results.

"State of the Field Report: Arts in Healthcare" in 2009 found there is a growing body of research linking the arts to improved quality of care, "although much of the research on the economic benefits of arts in healthcare is anecdote-rich, and more quantitative data is needed." The report calls for research on outcomes and financial returns.

Many organizations find arts therapies can yield significant improvements in patients' functioning and systematically incorporate them within other therapeutic programs, particularly behavioral health. For example, the PeaceHealth Medical Group relies on an art therapist, a dance therapist and a poetry therapist to support the Sacred Heart inpatient psychiatric hospital in Eugene, Ore.

Poetry and art have been particularly valuable in the unit, she says, since so many clients are troubled by a thought disorder or auditory hallucination, and find it difficult to speak openly. Poetry, for example, gives them a way to focus and form their words and thoughts.

Deborah Sadowsky, a certified art therapist who works in the unit, also coordinates a series of three-hour group sessions for outpatients dealing with chronic severe pain. They are referred to the program by local physicians, physical therapists and mental health counselors.

"These groups are an opportunity for people to deal with the experience of chronic pain," she says. "Creating images that embody their experiences can be empowering."

The eight-week program is currently funded by a grant from the Sacred Heart Medical Center Foundation, an affiliate of PeaceHealth. Meetings include education on how to manage pain, visualization and relaxation training as well as expressive art therapy, Sadowsky says.

Images created by members of the group were exhibited at the state capitol. One, a figure in blue and green, created by an older woman with polymyalgia, expresses how her body feels pain. Another member of the group, asked to describe her experience, created an abstract image she titled "Broken."

"Many people who develop chronic pain struggle with the loss of their self-identity as they deal with the impact on their lives, including a loss of careers, relationships, and functional abilities," Sadowsky says. "The images allow us to become witnesses who understand and acknowledge their experience."