How Can We Harness New Applications of Art Therapy?

Researching ways to achieve better health outcomes and self-awareness.
Dr. Rachel Brandoff, assistant professor and coordinator of the art therapy concentration in Jefferson’s College of Health Professions. Photo by ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services

In these uncertain times, many are looking for new and different ways to relieve stress. Art therapy is gaining traction as a tool for improving mental health; it engages the mind, body and spirit in ways that are distinct from verbally articulating one’s thoughts or struggles. It is often used to improve cognitive and sensory-motor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills and reduce and resolve conflicts and distress.

Dr. Rachel Brandoff, assistant professor and coordinator of the art therapy concentration in the Department of Counseling and Behavioral Health, believes art therapy should be applied in healthcare settings to achieve optimal health outcomes and well-being. Read on to find out more her about current research into new applications of art therapy.

Q: How long have you been at Jefferson? What led you here?

A: I started in August of 2016 in an adjunct position, supporting the development of an art therapy concentration within the Community and Trauma Counseling program. The program was developed by two forward-thinking clinician-educators, Dr. Jeanne Felter and Dale Michaels. They were both passionate about the development of a counseling program that trained clinicians to work with trauma. They also both understood the importance of working with individuals with trauma in ways that do not always rely on verbal therapy and an individual’s ability to articulate their thoughts and experience in words. I was excited about developing the new concentration within a trauma counseling program—an idea that aligns with my own philosophies about how ubiquitous trauma is, and how it should be incorporated into clinical education.

Q: Tell us a bit about your field or area of research. What’s one question you’re exploring?

A: My doctoral research and years of clinical work have centered on complicated grief, now called prolonged grief disorder, and the use of art therapy. I just published a chapter on this work in an internationally edited volume of research in art therapy. Prolonged grief disorder is the diagnostic name given to grief that is so intense in duration and experience that it interrupts a person’s life, causes them distress and does not resolve itself in a typical trajectory whereby they can resume life activities. My research findings support that teaching counselors and art therapists about grief and prolonged grief disorder better equips them to support their clients. I hope to have the chance to scale my research to a larger group of clinicians.

I have two other research projects in the works. One involves the creation of a new interdisciplinary course called “Health and the Art Experience,” which is scheduled to run in spring 2022, and is open to students in all disciplines at Jefferson. This course will function as a think tank and be affiliated with the new Center for Immersive Art Experiences at Jefferson, helmed by Lyn Godley from the Kanbar School of Design, Engineering and Commerce. This course and the larger Center for Immersive Art Experiences look at the active creation of art or participation in the creative process as a tool in helping to meet patient goals and achieve healthcare outcomes.

There is a lot of myth-busting around art therapy. It is not just for kids. It is not just for artists. You do not need to have prior skill, ability, talent or experience to engage in making art.

Art therapy research already supports the idea that active engagement in art-making can help a patient achieve social, emotional, educational and mental-health goals. But mainstream medical health care still has a long way to go towards implementing the arts in health in ways that are more than just decorative. The creative process and personal expression can come into care at the bedside, in waiting rooms, lobbies, elevators and even parking garages. Engaging clients through art is an opportunity that we have not fully explored or utilized. This is what my colleagues and I are interested in demonstrating. Fortunately, there are so many wonderful forward-thinking clinicians at Jefferson who are excited about the implementation of arts in health care in novel ways.

Another research project that I am working on looks to build empathy in medical students by having them explore and write about their own birth story. Here students have the opportunity to interview the birthing and/or non-birthing parent, or another birthing person in their life and write about the experiences.  There is a growing interest in birth stories, and we believe that exploring these might benefit developing healthcare practitioners and the patients they serve.

Q: What first sparked your interest in your area of research/your research question?

A: One of the exciting things about being at Jefferson right now is the encouragement towards multidisciplinary collaboration, and a concerted move away from professions that do not work and share information with one another. Jefferson has backed this up by promoting multiple opportunities—conferences, courses, symposia, research workgroups – that bring together diverse faculty in ways that are untraditional in academia. I have had the opportunity to talk, meet and work with faculty in design, nursing, medicine, occupational therapy, midwifery and science. For example, I recently presented at the 2nd Annual Neurodiversity Symposium, which centered on immersive art experiences.

Q: What is the fire in your belly that drives your passion for your research?

A: I know that creativity and personal expression through creating art can improve people’s lives, health outcomes and trauma recovery journeys. I am always excited to find new ways to demonstrate efficacy, identify best practices, and implement art therapy.

Q: What’s a cool or little known or unique fact about your work?

A: There is a lot of myth-busting around art therapy. It is not just for kids. It is not just for artists. You do not need to have prior skill, ability, talent or experience to engage in making art. A roadblock for some people in engaging in art therapy is feeling like they are not creative; this is often the result of linking the concept of creativity to how they use art materials to express themselves, instead of to a way of thinking and acting.

Q: If you had any words of advice for an aspiring researcher or student in this field, what would they be?

A: If you believe in what you are doing, then keep doing it.

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