Art opens a new window on chronic illness

chronic pain, man bedeviled by headache, historic image
chronic pain, man bedeviled by headache, historic image
Lucy Gagliese

It was a short story collection that inspired Professor Lucy Gagliese, a clinical psychologist teaching at York University’s School of Kinesiology & Health Science, to offer her students a new perspective on chronic illness using the arts as a medium.

“I’m a huge fan of fiction and write short stories myself,” said Gagliese. “As I read Ellen in Pieces by Caroline Adderson, a book of short stories that deals with health-related issues such as palliative care, I thought, ‘I wish my students could read this,’ and then I realized they could.

“I decided I had to figure out how to make it part of my course. Health humanities is a growing field at medical schools,” she said. “Narrative medicine is a way of learning through stories that increases empathy for others.”

Gagliese teaches a fourth-year, blended undergraduate course on the psychology of chronic illness in York University’s Faculty of Health, and in 2016, she chose to incorporate arts into the online section of the course. It is optional, supplementing the more scientific reading and assignments, but “an overwhelming majority” of her students participate. It has been so popular – with 80 per cent of students rating it as valuable – that Gagliese is planning to increase the course’s arts component beyond the original three weeks.

“The students who did participate really went for it,” she said proudly.

Poetry was the first medium the course tackled, using it to help students understand how people adjust to chronic illness and how it changes lives. Gagliese assigned students a TED talk given by Robin Morgan, a poet who is living with Parkinson’s disease, to watch and asked them to discuss how it reflected on the other course material. As part of the exercise, students could share poems online or write their own to share with classmates.

“They picked out lines in poems that reflected the different types of coping we studied and posted links to poems for other students to read,” Gagliese said. “It kind of exploded; they were really engaged with the material.”

During the week when pain was the topic of study, Gagliese asked her students to look at art created by people with chronic pain that is posted on the website. She asked them how the art challenged or illustrated what they were learning.

“Visual art was scarier for them, because, as science students, they are accustomed to concrete answers and are afraid of getting things wrong,” Gagliese said.

Finally, during the week they studied Aboriginal health issues, Gagliese asked the students to read “War Dances,” a short story by Sherman Alexie that explores both traditional healing and family dynamics. She asked the class to use the story as a basis for generating testable hypotheses and received a variety of excellent suggestions.

“I feel subjectively that students developed more empathy toward chronic illness than they would have otherwise, and it’s something I hope to collect data about to see if this is borne out by research,” Gagliese said. “All of this reflective learning gives students a chance to practise what they’ve studied.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus