2017-01-12 / Front Page

Using the Arts to Foster Mental Wellness

By Betsy Sherman Walker


Newport Hospital’s Healing Through Creative Arts program provides participants with a way to connect, with themselves and others. 
(Photo by Jen Carter) Newport Hospital’s Healing Through Creative Arts program provides participants with a way to connect, with themselves and others. (Photo by Jen Carter) A behavioral health program at Newport Hospital is receiving high approval ratings from both administrators and participants, and was recently given a national forum when its director, recreation therapist Bethany Diedrich, was invited to present an overview at a meeting of the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification in Chicago in September.

Discussing the Healing Through Creative Arts Program, Diedrich, who has been with the hospital since 2012 when the program was begun, was able to report, among other statistics, that patient feedback for positive mood was in the 98th percentile.

Those who have experienced it, raw and firsthand, would agree. “Bethany does a superlative job,” a patient on the behavioral health floor told Newport This Week. “I’ve been to other hospitals in the state, and they have nothing like the programs here. There are groups to look forward to, games to play, personal interaction.”

The patient described a creative exercise in self-awareness, in which she drew herself as a “frozen stick figure” inside a circle. “It made me think I was frozen in a state of, ‘OK, I’m here. I know I’m getting better.’ It helped me see my current condition as I saw it.”

Proponents of creative arts therapy say that it recognizes artistic expression as a healing tool, capable of helping individuals struggling with a range of mental health issues. The main ingredient is the power of healing that comes through the power of art.

There don’t seem to be any detractors.

The 45-minute, no-judgment zone sessions are held throughout the day, Monday through Friday. Patients engage in whatever form of creative expression draws them in. And draws them out. “With mental health issues, people are so ostracized,” says Diedrich. “This is a safe place to connect.”

The goal: To connect with themselves and others – by drawing, making collages, writing, dancing or practicing the downward dog – taking whatever baby steps are necessary to make them feel whole again. Just a simple sense of normalcy can be a victory.

The Behavioral Health Unit at Newport Hospital is a 15-bed adult inpatient unit with a partial hospitalization program. The average stay is five to 10 days, while others come into the facility on an outpatient basis. They are attempting to cope with depression, anxiety, mood disorders, or feelings of loneliness and isolation. And while all are making individual journeys on the road to well-being, in the creative arts program they travel the same route.

Mental health professionals have long recognized the connection between tapping into one’s capacity for creativity with the capacity to heal. “All behavior is indicative of a deeper need,” explains Nursing Director Valerie Seney, who joined the staff of the Behavioral Health Unit in December 2015. “This is about straight communication. The healing arts touch that deeper need, and meet the patients where they’re at.”

One also quickly figures out that for those who practice and those who receive, each of the various Lifespan hospitals uses its own words to describe the therapy, and that creative arts is interchangeable with recreational arts, expressive arts, and healing arts.

Four years in, Diedrich is credited with having taken the creative arts program to a new level. Seeking ways to amplify what she brings to her work, Diedrich has been particularly drawn to PeaceLove, a Pawtucket based organization whose goal is to change, through expressive arts and storytelling, the stigma attached to mental illness. Its mission is to “help people find their voice, make meaningful connections, and discover new tools for mental wellness.” She attended a workshop in the summer of 2016, earning the title of Creator, which certified her as an official Peace- Love instructor.

Shirley Hardison has been a volunteer for the program since its early days, when she was the second volunteer to sign up. Today there are eight, and that number is growing. In Hardison’s experience, no two patients are ever alike. But in the lifelines they use, she sees creative expression as an effective conduit.

“The overall goal,” she says, “is to help them get their feelings out.” When asked how the program is different today than it was a year ago, Hardison explains that the message and potential of Peace- Love has taken it up a notch. “We have more tools and more media to work with. It’s like attending a graduate course,” she says. “We have added a whole new level of elements from the program.”

Hardison described another project where people “send a greeting card to themselves. I tell them to make the card and then send themselves a message” – of encouragement or about a personal epiphany, an aha moment. One person later told her that she had “kept that card at home for years.” Another Hardison favorite: creating a “headline,” ransom-note style, using letters cut out from magazines and newspapers to convey, good or bad, what the week has been like.

The mental health field is one where successful treatment requires a healthy dose of realism. There are no breakthroughs, Diedrich says. “Many people come in time and time again. These are people who haven’t enjoyed any length of time in their lives.”

But there is also the half-full side. Diedrich pointed out that the sessions can be “the first time some are able to be OK in a social situation.”

She feels as if she is in “a state of constant learning,” which is important for the greater depth it brings to their efforts and how it impacts her relationships with her patients. “I love connecting with the patients, watching people grow and change.”

“This is still a work in progress,” says Seney. Diedrich agreed, noting that they all want to grow the program more, incorporating other disciplines. They have also started to work on a way to have support sessions available on weekends, which would include interns from area colleges.

Seney adds, “We need to prove to the world how valuable this is.”

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