Women Coping Through Artwork

The Hamilton Spectator

April 24, 2010

Women Coping Through Artwork Helps in dealing with infertility

The pictures are simple stick figures but they’re powerful enough to evoke tears as area women desperate to have children draw their feelings about infertility. The humble sketches – part of an art therapy study by a leading Hamilton infertility specialist – communicate at a glance what the women can’t find the words to say. One depicts a man and a woman standing apart with a hole where their hearts should be. Another is a woman drained of all colour. Artistic ability doesn’t matter. Some of the most rudimentary drawings convey the most meaning. A circle above the world “empty.” A wilting flower. A wall with a garden on one side and nothing on the other.

“These are very primitive drawings,” said Dr. Edward Hughes, McMaster University professor and specialist at One Fertility in Burlington. “But something happens when you give somebody a piece of paper and a pen that allows them to express feelings that can’t be verbalized.” For the 21 women who took part in the study, eight weeks of art therapy had a big impact. Psychological testing showed significant decreases in hopelessness and depression. The women reported feeling powerful and joyous.

Published in last month’s Journal of Medical Humanities, the study concludes art therapy is a cheap, safe and novel approach that should be considered to help support patients as they cope with infertility. “It’s so much easier than saying it,” said Arthur Greenblatt, executive director of the Dundas Valley School of Art. “Once they understand it’s not a contest, when you don’t care what it looks like and you express yourself, it’s a great cathartic experience.” Hughes, who spends his days in the highly scientific world of infertility, has long used art to express himself.

An avid painter, he fills the clinic with original art — moving it around depending on what moods he wants to convey in what rooms. He wanted to see if art could help his patients, suffering extreme stress, grief and loss of self-esteem because of their inability to conceive. Art therapy has already been used successfully for cancer patients, victims of abuse and in prisons.

The two-hour sessions involved patients, artists, an art therapist and a doctor.
It was surprisingly hard to recruit patients. “People are scared of drawing,” said Hughes. “But what we did has nothing to do with artistic ability. It provides people with a chance to explore their feelings.” The study points out that young children regularly use art therapy but that “sadly by adulthood, most of us have lost this magical confidence. “Making drawings and paintings, then sharing their meaning with self and others is an appalling prospect for most grown ups.” Art therapy gives the confidence back to use simple images to explore feelings.

Hughes would like to take the study further and see if art therapy can help women going through infertility treatment become pregnant. But he needs more research funding. In the meantime, he’s trying to drum up enough interest to get the therapy running at One Fertility. “There’s so much science involved in what we do,” said Hughes. “Yet the human side of this is huge. Art from my perspective links the two together – it’s a bridge. I think in all sorts of medicine there is potential for that.”