The above piece was created by Thundermist chronic pain support group member Linda Herard.

WAKEFIELD – Patients of Thundermist Health Center of South County are getting creative when it comes to dealing with chronic pain. At an art showcase held at Thundermist last weekend,  members of the facility’s chronic pain support group displayed various patient-created pieces reflective of living with intense physical hardship, and how the act of art creation served as a form of treatment.

“It’s been a gradual implementation,” said Elizabeth Carter, a licensed mental health counselor and behavioral health clinician at Thundermist, on the history of art therapy at the facility. “I’m a therapist and mental health is part of what we do at Thundermist - mental health and behavioral health are integrated into our whole treatment model so I work hand-in-hand with the doctors, nurse practitioners and all of that.”   

Carter has been working with the chronic pain support group at Thundermist for eight years, and a handful of her patients are professional artists, while others consider the practice a hobby and means of coping with their diagnoses. Formerly working in biology and mental health treatment for children, Carter said bringing art therapy to grown chronic pain patients was a logical connection.

“That was natural,” said Carter. “As I had more and more artists who were adults, it’s just a great modality.”

According to various medical studies and journals, art therapy is an emerging and potentially powerful method of coping with constant and intense physical displeasure.

“Art therapy does not replace the need for pain medication, but it can be used as an effective complement and reduce perceptions of pain experiences,” said Kelsey A. Skerpan, an art therapist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital in “Harvard Health.” “It can help people better manage the symptoms of stress and anxiety that accompany pain, which assists with the recovery process and improves quality of life.”

A study published in the February 2018 issue of “The Arts in Psychotherapy” examined nearly 200 patients hospitalized for a medical issue or surgery. Participation in art therapy for an average of 50 minutes significantly improved the patients’ moods while also lowering levels of pain and anxiety, the study found.

“Art therapy helps patients with stress management, chronic pain, and supports recovery from substance use disorder,” said Carter. “It also helps engage patients in ways normal therapy cannot, and is enriching of the mind, body, and spirit.”

Art therapy patients at Thundermist are referred to the program by healthcare providers. The facility’s behavioral health program is a team of clinical social workers, mental health counselors, and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners who work together to provide care to patients based on their specific needs.

In 2016, RI Department of Health partnered with the RI State Council on the Arts to support the development of a State Arts and Health Plan–a public health roadmap for advancing the integration of arts and health for the state. As part of this process an interdisciplinary team of arts and health practitioners which includes researchers, artists, and clinicians formed the RI Arts and Health Advisory Group. The Advisory Group outlined a strategy for fully integrating arts and arts-based therapies into healthcare and community settings through innovative and sustainable policy, practice, and research recommendations, according to RIDOH’s website.

“We often think of arts in healthcare as painted murals and music in the halls,” the plan reads. “This function of art as a humanizing presence in sterile, busy healthcare settings should be embraced. However, the arts can accomplish much more. The arts can serve as a public health opportunity and intervention—providing a connection to social services, mental health, neurosciences, and other fields that have historically been disconnected from one another. Led by the agencies of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS) and a network of others from government, local business, and local communities, these fields are actively engaged in creating holistic approaches to elimination of the socioeconomic and environmental determinants of health. The arts can play a significant role in these efforts.”

As such, the art therapy program at Thundermist was implemented a year after the state health department’s partnership with the arts council.   

“I actually used to want to be an artist,” says Carter at the showcase on Saturday, before chronic pain members interrupt to note she was being modest.

“We were implementing art into treatment for chronic pain long before it was cool,” said Jo-Ann Grillo, an artist in the showcase and patient of Thundermist’s chronic pain group.

In 2017, seeing the positive effects early components of art therapy were having on its patients, Thundermist applied for and received a grant that would help bolster its new art therapy program. The grant was made possible by the state’s dedication to implmenting art therapy for chronic pain patients throughout Rhode Island.

“Sometimes it can help deepen things for people who have difficult trauma,” said Carter on the arts as a form of therapy. “Just talking about things is not always the best way to process them. So sometimes to distance a little bit through art or through writing is really helpful and powerful. Also, it communicates feelings in a very different, deeper way.”

“People who like to look at art know that,” Carter continued. “Art can tell the viewer things at a very different level.”

Grillo, who suffered an automotive accident that resulted in significant nerve damage to her spine, features a stand at the show which includes handmade wind chimes fashioned from old pipe, sculptures of various wildlife with wood bases acting as detailed settings, drawings, sketches and handprinted canes and walking sticks, the latter of which Grillo uses to assist her mobility. She describes her extreme physical discomfort as “sparking pains,” and said her doctors at the time likened the effect on the nerves in her back to two exposed wires touching and subsequently sparking.

“Art takes our minds off the pain,” said Grillo. “It gives us something else to focus on. And giving a finished piece to a friend or somebody who’s helped me is kind of my way of appreciating somebody. It’s just my way of saying ‘thanks.’”

“I say every day that I could be worse off,” continued Grillo, who had to ditch a long-running passion of riding motorcycles, dirt bikes and four-wheelers as a result of the injury. “I’m thankful to even be mobile. I had to alter the way I do things, but I still am able to do some things. It took me a while to get to this point because it drastically altered my lifestyle. I was a very active person.”  

In some cases, art therapy allows patients to seize power when dealing with their trauma and in effect rewrite their narrative through creating art, effectively improving one’s self-image and mental health. To illustrate this idea, one painting at the showcase, completed by members of the facility’s chronic pain group, hangs in a broken frame in a back corner of the community room on Thundermists’s second level,. A note accompanying the piece acknowledges the flawed frame, and draws a connection between it and members of the group, stating “though it is broken, it is still beautiful.”

“That makes me feel good about myself,” added Grillo.

Another member of the group, Linda Herard, who was inspired by a post she saw on the internet, uses books as a canvas for self-expression. Folding and manipulating multiple pages of a hardcover book, work that typically takes hours and hours, Herard creates images, like a teddy bear or Santa’s sleigh, built into the book’s pages and displayed facing outward. One such piece  inscribes the word “LOVE” into the pages of a book titled “Cognitive Aspects of Chronic Illness in Children.”

“They take a long time but they help relieve my stress,” said Herard. “I have to set an alarm, because sometimes I get lost in it. But it really soothes me.”

Herard also participates in South County Rocks, an initiative that encourages residents to create decorations on rocks and leave in places for others to find and then pass on.

“It just a good distraction,” said Herard of her creation process. “From work, from the pain, from whatever.”

Herard had to undergo three separate shoulder surgeries this year.

“I’m still not good,” she said. “I might have to have my shoulder replaced. People say ‘you poor thing.’ I don’t think of it that way. I consider myself lucky to have a shoulder to even feel pain with. Some people don’t have that.”

Thundermist Health Center of South County is located at 1 River St. in Wakefield.

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