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Michele Wood is an art therapist who works with adults and children, especially those living with life-threatening illnesses. She works for Marie Curie Cancer Care in their Hospice in Hampstead, London, and as a senior lecturer at the University of Roehampton training art therapists on the MA in Art Psychotherapy.
In my hospice job I work as part of the Patient and Family Support Team, offering emotional and psychological support. Art therapy is available for in-patients, out-patients and carers.
My typical day begins with a team meeting, after which I follow up new referrals, emails and telephone calls. I see patients for individual sessions, and also run a drop-in open studio art therapy group.
I also attend the multidisciplinary team meeting for one of our wards, where doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, the occupational therapist, chaplain, pharmacist, social workers and counsellors come together to think about the patients. Before I go home I finalise arrangements for meeting new clients and I tidy up my art therapy room ready for the next day.
Coping well with the physical, social and emotional impact of cancer is a complex task for the person diagnosed and for carers and family members too. It requires ongoing adjustments to expectations, relationships and roles, and learning how to manage emotions. Art therapy can help in this process since it involves people taking an active role in using visual art media to communicate and express themselves.
Art therapists are trained to support people to consider thoughts, feelings and behaviours that are not easily put into words. Working with art materials enables a person to communicate strong emotions safely and symbolically. It reinforces a person’s capacity for choice and control, it affirms their point of view and also provides new perspectives.
Different materials can have different benefits: pens and pencils offer precision, familiarity and control; chalk and oil pastels enable smudging and stroking colours onto paper, which can be a soothing and calming experience for some people. I have a range of paints (watercolours, acrylics, and poster) and inks, which all offer the possibility of fluidity, some unpredictability and mess-making. Collage, modelling materials and clay provide the possibility of 3-dimensional work too.
I also have several iPads with art-making apps so people can experiment without getting their hands mucky! The iPad is also useful where people have restricted mobility or are anxious about ‘waste’ or lack of skills.
It’s important to remember that art experience or skill is NOT a pre-requisite for being able to use art therapy.
Witnessing how the creative and life-affirming potential of people can emerge in even the most difficult of circumstances. Despite doing this work for over a quarter of a century (!) I am always amazed and surprised by how much can come into view once someone begins to ‘make their mark’.
Although it is emotionally demanding to work as an art therapist I consider it a great privilege to support people during the challenging times of living with illness. It can sound such a cliché, but I have learnt so much from the courage, creativity and insights of the people I have worked with. It helps to have a fantastic team of colleagues, and this is also one of the things I value about my job.
One spent relaxing with friends and family.
A lot people aren’t aware of art therapy, but there are many art therapists out there.
Ask your health professionals (GPs, oncologists, those in their cancer networks) to put you in touch with a local service
Have a look at the British Association of Art Therapists website.
Contact Creative Response, a special interest group for art therapists working in cancer care on firstname.lastname@example.org.
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