Blog: How digital art therapy can help people with terminal illness

Published: 22 Aug 2019

Author: Michèle Wood
Blog: How digital art therapy can help people with terminal illness

My Churchill Fellowship in 2015 explored how digital technology is helping hospices deliver art therapy to enhance, extend or limit the care of people with a terminal illness

With most people using smartphones and portable computers to connect to the internet, there is a shift in how health and social care services are delivered. There are now over 300,000 apps for health and wellbeing available worldwide. Digital tools like apps and websites allow for self-monitoring of symptoms, access to trustworthy information and education, and interactions between patients and professionals located in different geographical or time zones. The NHS Digital Strategy recognises that better use of technology and digital resources can help meet the increasing number of people living for longer with multiple conditions.

With most people using smartphones and portable computers to connect to the internet, there is a shift in how health and social care services are delivered. 

As an experienced art therapist working at the Marie Curie Hospice Hampstead, I see patients using their smartphones and iPads in all these ways. Over the years I have become interested in how digital technology in art therapy can enhance, extend or limit the care of patients and their families living with terminal illnesses. Patients are choosing creative apps to convey their feelings in sessions, and for relaxation while waiting for appointments. And while there is evidence from other parts of the world of digital art therapy interventions to help with anxiety, for adolescents with cancer or people with autism, there is little being developed for digital art therapy in the UK.

My Churchill Fellowship in 2015 enabled me to learn how digital art therapy could help in hospices, especially for those receiving palliative care.  

In the USA and Canada, I met colleagues in a variety of services and saw reasons for using technology in art therapy. I discussed which digital resources and processes were needed for adults and children with physical and learning disabilities, mental health conditions and cancer. I learned of new research studies and approaches required for successfully embedding digital practices. I considered the professional and ethical issues raised by digital technology.

The key findings from my Fellowship

  1. ‘Digital Art Therapy’ is a somewhat contested term. Some art therapists regard technology in art therapy as just another tool (like pencils or paint) which don’t require a special label.  Others claim that technology is changing their art therapy practice, taking it in new directions, and that digital art therapy is a useful umbrella term for this.
  2. Digital technology can enable the delivery of art therapy interventions when the therapist and client are not in the same physical space (for reasons of geography, time or other factors).
  3. Portable digital devices with access to the internet enable art therapists and clients to quickly summon up important aspects of the client’s life during sessions. For example, seeing street view maps of significant places, finding photographs or images for collage, choosing music to facilitate reminiscence or to calm the atmosphere of groups.
  4. Online psycho-educational resources, accessible through smartphones, tablet, laptop and desktop computers, are increasingly popular amongst health providers, who regard them as an effective way of reaching service users familiar with the online environment.
  5. Organisations with well-established digital art therapy practices also have dedicated Information Technology staff to support this.
  6. Practitioners did not consider that their own postgraduate training in art therapy equipped them to work confidently or competently with digital technology.
  7. There were art therapy practices that differed to those here in the UK, through their extension of the boundaries of confidentiality, the incorporation of other expressive arts techniques, and where the technology itself takes on the role of therapist.
  8. Researchers working on new technologies with application for psycho-therapeutic work want to collaborate with art therapists to develop new digital interventions.

How I’m applying what I learnt on my Fellowship

Gathering this information is helping me to shape guidelines and resources for working with patients. It is also helping my work in training staff and students. I have contributed to the Digital Media Guidelines of the British Association of Art Therapists, and developed a curriculum for postgraduate arts therapies training at the University of Roehampton. Read my survey of digital art therapy in the UK.

My Fellowship experiences also resulted in me leading two recent international projects:

  • The Digital International Creative Arts Therapies Symposium. This innovative project took place in February 2019 and was broadcast in 3D from Singapore, Moscow, London, Philadelphia, Vancouver and Los Angeles. It was livestreamed to online participants over 24 hours, showcasing the diverse digital practices of arts therapists and artists working in hospices, mental health and education settings.
  • The International Handbook of Palliative and Bereavement Care published by Routledge in June 2019. My chapter outlines why digital technology in art therapy for end of life care is important (the photo above was taken at the book launch).

What I’m going to do next

  1. Supported by Marie Curie, I will be undertaking research to explore views of patients and families who are receiving palliative care, about online and digital tools for their emotional wellbeing and self-management.
  2. I am piloting an online version of my hospice Open Studio Art Therapy Group in Autumn 2019.
  3. I am continuing to involve service users in developing both practice and research for digital art therapy in end of life care, which you can read about on my blog Power In Our Hands.

My own view is that digital art therapy has the potential to help palliative care, by extending resources to people unable to leave their homes, people seeking support at any time of the day or night, and people who require specialised interventions that meet their specific cognitive or physical needs. This requires an investment of time, money and interest from all healthcare professionals, to engage with service users to develop the NHS digital agenda through education, research and practice. I am pleased to be part of that progress. 

Read Michèle's report

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