Artistic Touch

When Art Therapists Amy McKay and Michelle Dixon walk into The Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) cancer ward, or the Kookaburra Ward as it’s commonly referred, the smiles on the children’s faces are instantaneous.

Maybe it’s the envy of the colourful paints in the art trolley, the pencils, paper, and glitter, or the opportunity to do something fun and therapeutic. Whatever the reason, Amy and Michelle’s presence is welcome in an environment of doctors, nurses, and treatments.

“We love coming to work and seeing the impact something as simple as art can have on the patients,” Amy says.

The Art Therapy service has been funded by the Children's Cancer Foundation since July 2010, with more than $500,000 distributed to the Children’s Cancer Centre at The Royal Children's Hospital.

Both Amy and Michelle have worked at the RCH for the past seven years. They studied visual arts and completed a Masters of Art Therapy, and have seen the profession grow in popularity and public awareness.

“The profile of what an art therapist does has certainly developed in the past 10 years,” Amy says. “During the 1980s, art therapists had previous backgrounds as nurses or psychologists but now more graduates are studying art therapy as a stand-alone career path.”

Michelle’s career counsellor at school said she shouldn’t pursue art therapy, but she did anyway. “I am doing my dream job. I find it suits my creative side and personality,” Michelle says. “I used art to cope with personal grief as a teenager and I can see the same positive impact it has on children undergoing cancer treatment.”

Art therapy is a form of expressive therapy that uses art to improve physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. At the RCH, it gives children and adolescents with cancer the chance to express their experiences of illness that are often difficult to communicate with words alone.

“We work in a place where there’s lots of anxious kids undergoing treatment away from family, away from school, their friends, and their normal routine,” Michelle says. “There’s a lot for the children to process around their cancer treatment, and art is one way for them to express their feelings in a positive and healthy way.”

Amy says they treat the children as artists and support them as artists.

“Choice is really important. They decide if they want to see us, they choose the materials they want to use, and how they use them. They should be allowed to have active participation in something they can control, when so much of their condition, their treatment, and feelings, they can’t,” she says.

Amy and Michelle work with all age groups, from toddlers through to adolescents and young adults across the Kookaburra Ward, Bone Marrow Transplant Unit, Day Oncology and Outpatient services of the Children’s Cancer Centre (CCC). Each art therapy session is tailored to each individual or age group, and their different stage of development. Different mediums are used, including drawing, painting, sculpture, computer art, and photography.

“A four-year-old might enjoy the adult interaction, but an adolescent might enjoy doing some art alone, giving them their own space while their parents get a break,” Michelle says. “Art is really the gateway to therapy. At first it’s about letting the child find an activity that interests them. Then, they might like to talk about the artwork and the story behind it.”

Both Amy and Michelle find various trends in the different art the children create, which they say are essentially an extension of their emotions. While Amy says colours are no certain indication to depict sadness or happiness, there are common symbols affiliated with child cancer patients. They include rainbows and suns, which depict hope; trees with root systems, which indicates family support networks; and large-scale images or bold words, which symbolise a child’s level of confidence.

“Art holds a whole gamut of emotions. It’s OK to feel sad and angry, and often it’s demonstrated through their paintings,” Amy says. “We do have certain tools and techniques to assess a child’s emotional development, but it’s not so much about interpreting. We let the child tell their story through art, and we listen in a supportive role.”

Art therapists work closely with music and play therapists, and physiotherapists who promote art therapy as a form of emotional rehabilitation.

“There are certain techniques like modelling clay or holding a paintbrush that are great for a child who needs to strengthen their hand muscles or develop their motor skills and coordination. For some children with brain tumours for instance, art therapy is a great way to stimulate parts of the brain and help re-establish certain skills after surgery. Or it could simply be a way to get a child out of bed and be more active,” Amy says. “Quite often the parents will see an immediate impact after an art therapy session, such as a change in mood.”

While colouring and drawing addresses the emotional, social, cognitive, cultural, and spiritual needs of children undergoing cancer treatment, Amy says art therapy isn’t only for patients, but families too.

The original article featured in the August 2016 edition of BeanScene Magazine.

Watch a video for a closer look at the Art Therapy service within the Children's Cancer Centre at The Royal Children's Hospital.