Art Therapy

A hospital stay can be a hard emotional experience for a child. And it also may be hard for them to talk about what they’re feeling.

Many children may find it easier to show their feelings through art or play. The art therapy program at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh helps children express themselves through art.

What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy uses different types of art to help people work through behavioral, emotional, and/or psychological difficulties. It can be a way for them to show what they’re feeling if they can’t talk about it.

“Medical art therapy is very powerful,” says Kate Gibson, MA, ATR-BC, LPC, art therapist, UPMC Children’s Hospital. “A huge benefit is self-expression. There is so much that happens to your body, to your self-esteem, and to your mind. Art therapy provides the opportunity to gain control in an environment where patients experience lack of control.

“Things can change so quickly here in the hospital, and it can be extremely overwhelming. So, art therapy is a way to process everything that is going on, but it’s also a way to connect.”

In medical art therapy, patients work with registered and board-certified art therapists. These professionals have master’s degrees in both art therapy and counseling.

Art therapy can use many different mediums — crayons, markers, paint, clay, and even mixed media.

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Who Is Art Therapy For?

Art therapy can be for anyone. At UPMC Children’s, any admitted patient is eligible for art therapy.

The patients who may benefit most are those who are struggling emotionally or psychologically while in the hospital.

“Art therapy is a service for any patient who really needs that extra support. Whether that might be for emotional or psychosocial reasons or increased family support,” says Katie O’Connor, MA, ATR-BC, CCLS, LPC, art therapist, UPMC Children’s.

Doctors, nurses, and other staff at UPMC Children’s can request a consultation from one of the art therapists.

A patient doesn’t need to have any artistic skills to benefit from art therapy.

“We often hear, ‘Oh, I can’t create art,'” says Megan Palko, MA, ATR-BC, CCLS, LPC, art therapist, UPMC Children’s. “But for art therapy, you don’t have to be a trained artist to reap the benefits of it. It’s more just about the process and not about the product.

“It takes a little bit of time, but I think after experiencing the process they start to understand the cathartic and therapeutic impact, even if their art didn’t exactly turn out the way the may have intended.”

What Happens in an Art Therapy Session?

A typical art therapy session lasts about 45 minutes to an hour. O’Connor says the first art therapy session with a patient typically involves getting to know them and explaining the process.

“I personally use a little bit of humor when I’m meeting a family for the first time, if I can,” O’Connor says. “Of course, depending on the diagnosis or consult, it would be tailored. So I’ll introduce myself as a non-medical support person that is here for them.”

The art therapists at UPMC Children’s bring with them a variety of art materials. They let the child have input in what they want to create.

“One of the biggest things about medical art therapy is giving the patient a choice,” Palko says. “Especially in a hospital setting where patients don’t typically have many options. They don’t have the choice. They don’t have the control. So, we often let them lead.”

UPMC Children’s also has an art therapy studio that the children can go to if they are able to leave the room. The studio has more art materials, including two pottery wheels — one of which is adaptive. There also is a pottery wheel that the art therapists can bring to a patient’s bedside.

The art therapists empower their patients to decide if they prefer an individual or family-based session. This allows parents to join at times, or even take a break and have some time to themselves.

In addition to creating the art, art therapists also talk to the children about how they’re feeling. Because art is a natural way of communicating, the child may feel more comfortable opening up without needing to verbalize their feelings.

Often feelings can come out in the artwork itself. The art therapists’ training helps them to identify and understanding the feelings that may be coming through in their art, Palko says. For example, Gibson says monsters are a frequent presence in artwork — which could indicate fear.

Other times, the art therapists may sense that a patient is experiencing strong feelings. They then can frame the session around getting some of those feelings out.

“There are many times that we have had really difficult conversations, very difficult emotions that we’re processing that are quite negative,” Gibson says. “That in and of itself is extremely overwhelming.

“So, some of the things I’ve done is take clay and instead of making a really pretty pot on the wheel, we start to make that pot and then we squeeze the heck out of it and just destroy it. That is so cathartic, that release of that aggression. And I think that is a huge example of the benefit of art therapy, that it’s not always pretty, but it’s powerful.”

Gibson says that at times the art therapists also work to coordinate goals with physical and occupational therapists at UPMC Children’s. For example, if a patient needs to stand a certain length of time to meet a physical therapy goal, the art therapists can plan an intervention that involves standing, such as painting at an easel. Or, if a patient needs to work on grasping with occupational therapy, the art therapists can select art materials to focus on increasing fine motor skills.

Benefits of Art Therapy

Art therapy can have many different benefits for patients:

  • It can help them cope with an illness, a treatment, or a stay in the hospital.
  • It can reduce anxiety and help them manage fear, pain, and other feelings they might have while in the hospital.
  • It can help to build their self-esteem and confidence.
  • It gives them a sense of control during an experience when they don’t have much control over anything else.
  • It allows them to be creative and express themselves through art.
  • It helps them connect with other people through art.
  • It makes expressing intense feelings less scary and intimidating.
  • It can help them achieve goals of physical or occupational therapy.

“Empowerment, increasing self-esteem, and teaching coping skills for being in the hospital, are some of the biggest benefits of medical art therapy,” Gibson says. “It’s an opportunity to connect by creating artwork that you can share with friends and family, allowing you to feel more connected and less isolated.”

Some patients may only have one art therapy session before being discharged. Other patients may see the art therapists for weeks, months, or even years while battling a chronic health condition.

Over time, art therapists can build an even greater rapport with patients through art.

“My favorite part [of being an art therapist at UPMC Children’s] is being a small part of their hospital journey,” Palko says. “To walk alongside someone during their medical experience, it’s very special.”

Art Therapy at UPMC Children’s

The art therapy program at UPMC Children’s is available at no cost. While most art therapy programs focus on kids ages 3 and up, UPMC Children’s art therapists focus on the entire family. They tailor sessions to help younger children, siblings, parents, and any loved ones that may want to participate in art therapy sessions.

UPMC Children’s accepts donations of art materials (paper, markers, crayons, paintbrushes, and more) to help support the program.

For more about the UPMC Children’s art therapy program, visit our website.

“I just really love how unpredictable any art therapy session can be, and there are so many ‘aha!’ moments,” O’Connor says. “There are so many unexpected magical moments, and there’s such beauty in that. It is an incredible honor working with my patients and I’m extremely grateful for this work.”

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.