Art therapy isn’t just for patients. It can also be helpful to medical professionals and students, helping them to cope with stress and trauma.
Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine instructor Lisa Ennis has incorporated art therapy into a Foundations of Medicine class that first-year students at the college take. Ennis lectures on the topic and encourages students to use art as an outlet to help their future patients and themselves.
Ennis’s lessons on art therapy aren’t some granola, touchy-feely kumbayaism – studies show that art activities can greatly benefit patients processing emotions related to injury and illness and help medical professionals handle their own feelings regarding the pain and suffering they encounter in their work.
A recent study cited by Ennis found that high cortisol levels – which can be linked to diminished learning and memory function, lower immune system response, and several other problems – were reduced significantly after art therapy activities.
“There’s science behind this,” Ennis said.
Max Jabaay is an ACOM student who recently participated in art therapy activities led by Ennis. Jabaay said he never realized he was burned out until he took the Foundations of Medicine course. Jabaay said working as a firefighter and in an ER in Chicago before starting his studies at ACOM had caused him to suppress emotions related to the pain and damage he encountered in his work.
He continued to use this coping mechanism in medical school, but ultimately found it unhealthy. Jabaay said art activities gave him a better way to process the impact of his work. Jabaay recently completed a set of scrubs inscribed with short poems he wrote about his work.
Patrick Abler, another ACOM student, said he enjoyed Ennis’s lessons, as they allowed him to tap into skills other than the ones he’s developing in medical school.
“I have an art background,” he said. “Art is a great destresser, it’s very therapeutic.”
Giving students something to focus on other than medical school studies helps refresh them, Ennis said.
“It utilizes a part of the brain different than the part they’re using to study,” she said. “It gives them a break.”