How Art Therapy Helps Heal

Alzheimer'sBrain

“Juke Joint” by Chuck Dugan.

The impact of art on Alzheimer’s patients and veterans living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was discussed at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) El Paso’s September Walkin’ the Talk lecture.  Elisabeth Sommer, Ph.D., education curator for the El Paso Museum of Art (EPMA), presented “How the Visual Arts Can Provide Relief And Stimulation” to students, faculty and staff.

The EPMA partners with the Alzheimer’s Association to bring Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers together to view artwork in a safe environment.  “The art helps stimulate their brains,” said Dr. Sommer. “The goal is not to teach, but to help these individuals make connections.”

Dr. Sommer explained that on one occasion, paintings of coastal scenes were shown to patients, while sand and rocks were available for them to touch. The visuals prompted the patients to remember past events associated with these elements. “The senses are very powerful and stimulate synapses,” said Dr. Sommer.

On another occasion “Juke Joint,” a painting by Chuck Dugan prompted one Alzheimer’s patient to state, “That’s my mind” after being diagnosed with the disease.  Dr. Sommer explained that the abstract artwork engages the brain to work and make sense of what it’s seeing.

Artwork_Soldiers Response

“Self-Portrait with Calavera” by Luis Jimenez.

The EPMA also partners with the Warriors Resilience Center at Fort Bliss.  With the assistance from an art therapist, small groups of soldiers with PTSD explore artwork that resonates with them.  According to Sommer, many soldiers identify with the piece by Luis Jimenez entitled “Self-Portrait with Calavera” and say this piece reflects the image of how they see themselves.  “It’s pretty sobering” said Dr. Sommer. “The body heals, but the mind and soul are another matter.”

She said that in this instance the artwork revealed the impact of war on veterans.  “Art is a powerful medium,” said Dr. Sommer.

“Artwork is definitely important as a modality of helping individuals process and work through psychological challenges,” said Michael Escamilla, M.D., Ph.D., professor and director of the Center of Emphasis in Neurosciences at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso. “There is actually a long tradition of using art in therapy.  It allows a patient to tap into the richness of the non-verbal parts of his or her psyche.”

Dr. Escamilla teaches his psychiatry fellows to use art in therapy treatments because it encourages patients to express their feelings while finding symbols that help them work through their psychological pain. “Appreciating and responding to art activates many of the same parts of ourselves as does creating art itself,” said Dr. Escamilla.