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Published on August 24, 2021

A therapeutic art project for mental health patients and nursing students will grace hospital walls

therapeutic art project

The surroundings at the Cape Cod Hospital Behavioral Health Inpatient Unit are, by necessity, sparse to create a calming atmosphere for patients. But a group of Cape Cod Community College Nursing School (4Cs) students and Cape Cod Hospital (CCH) behavioral health patients thought some patient-created art would brighten up the unit walls a bit.

Led and inspired by Behavioral Health Nurse Sarah Son-Theroux, the five works of art will be installed in the hospital unit soon. The pieces, which are all roughly about 30x30 inches, range from a colorful “Gratitude Tree” where patients and students wrote things they were grateful for on the leaves, to a black and white paper collage titled “City of Refuge.” 

A former art teacher at Tabor Academy, Son-Theroux came up with the idea while teaching a class at the 4Cs nursing school’s Spring 2021 semester. She thought it would be good to have the students and some of the patients spend an hour a day on an activity that would be both a bonding exercise and possibly beneficial to the Behavioral Health unit. Unit leadership endorsed the idea as therapeutic for patients and instructional for the students.

“The staff who would come by (while the group was creating the art), would really put a smile on their faces,” said Son-Theroux. “We wanted to make them high quality, so we could put them on the walls.”

Son-Theroux, who is working on a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree via an online course at Johns Hopkins University, thought having something visual on the walls would be refreshing and upbeat for patients and staff. For the students, she knew that working with the patients on a common project would give them insight into the conditions some of the patients are suffering from and let them get to know them as individuals apart from their illness.

Student Rebecca Bassett of Plymouth, who graduated from the 4Cs program in June, said the idea was spot-on.

“I learned so much from working with the patients,” she said. “I think I always knew this, but during my time in the unit I was reminded that mental health challenges can affect all walks of life, from the very young to the very old, from the rich to the poor; we are all susceptible to that.”

Bassett said the experience solidified her desire to enter the behavioral health field as a nurse, and she hopes to help de-stigmatize mental illness through her work.

“We’re moving toward a place where the shame of mental illness and the stigma are starting to go away,” she said. “I think a lot of us in our own families have experienced someone that we’re close to that has struggled. It’s kind of universal.”

Fellow student Chantelle Heath, who was in her second-to-last rotation at the school when she took part in Son-Theroux’s class, said it brought the patients and students together.

“Most (of the patients) would come to watch, but then they decided to take turns participating,” she said. “Some of them opened up, laughing and participating. It was nice therapy for them.”

Heath observed that one patient, who was at first very quiet and reserved, gradually joined in with the laughter and felt comfortable expressing himself through the art.

“Going back the next week, we were looking for some of them because we had such a bonding experience with them,” she said.

In addition to the Gratitude Tree and City of Hope pieces, the collection includes a black and white paper collage of graphite on paper of blocks of ocean waves called “Ocean Collaboration.” Another piece, “Study in Blue” is also a paper collage of geometric shapes in shades of blue. “Magical Squiggles” is an expressionist piece with black lines with a heart, eyes and other shapes blended amongst the lines.

Son-Theroux has created a YouTube link of the artwork, showing the diverse creations. An article about the collaboration will appear in an upcoming edition of the American Nurses Association Massachusetts newsletter.

Art is therapeutic, no matter in what context it is done, Son-Theroux said, and Bassett said she learned that truth during the semester she spent in the class.

“I think it’s something that’s great for our mental health, whether we’re in a time of crisis or we’re in a time of maintenance,” she said.