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Can the arts and Medical Humanities prevent burn out?

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Bec Capp

Art can be considered a solution to burnout, due to the therapeutic capabilities art offers those who engage with it.
Can the arts and Medical Humanities prevent burn out?

Photo credit: Austockphoto

The implementation of Medical Humanities programs into the medical curriculum has had dramatic results with the development of empathy and observation skills, as well as building narrative abilities and meaning making. As art has therapeutic capabilities, could the Medical Humanities be the answer to the prevalent problem of burnout in medical students – and in other professions?

Emotionally taxing work environments                   

Burnout is not a new problem for the medical field. Sir William Osler speaks of the concept in his famous address, A Way of Life, given to the graduating medical students of Yale in 1913.

'The load of tomorrow, added to that of yesterday, carried day to-day makes the strongest falter … One of the saddest of life’s tragedies is the wreckage of the career of the young collegian by hurry, hustle, bustle and tension.'

In 2013, Beyondblue conducted a world-first mental health survey of thousands of medical students and clinicians. The National Mental Health Survey of Doctors and Medical Students revealed that they are: 'Burnt-out, more likely to experience psychological distress and suicidal thoughts than the general community and are drinking too much alcohol.'

This survey also indicated that medical students and young female doctors are most at risk of burnout and mental health problems. One in five medical students and one in ten doctors have had suicidal thoughts in the past year, and that more than four in ten students and a quarter of all doctors are highly likely to have a minor psychiatric disorder.

Art as therapy

Art can be considered a solution to burnout, due to the therapeutic capabilities art offers those who engage with it. It is important to note that the therapeutic benefits art can offer are different to the cognitive effects of an Art Therapy program.

Kivnick and Erickson write about art providing healing and wellbeing effects to those who engage with it, in their text The Arts as Healing (1983): 'Our central thesis is that it is a mistake to superimpose habitual therapeutic methods on activities that are healing in and of themselves.'

This is to say that art is healing without the need to run a psychotherapy program. Art can be a way to express feeling without words, facilitate concentration, control the expression of emotions and give self-confidence – and best of all, these wellbeing effects are accessible to all who engage with art.                         

This theory, that the therapeutic benefits of art are accessible without needing to participate in a therapeutic program, presents art itself as extremely useful healing tool for time poor students and medicos. 

Benefits of Medical Humanities

The present literature in medical humanities engages with the resulting outcomes of increased empathy and visual observation skills in medical students. These studies are being conducted to respond to the need for the translatable, quantifiable data of which the sciences will take seriously.

J. Shapiro and J. Shallit talk about how a museum visit as part of a Medical Humanities program is 'far from being “a waste of time,' in their text, A Night at the Museum – Helping Residents "See" Their Patients' (2014). They write that medicine can be enhanced though the study of art and can have dramatic results in the development of empathy, finding 'that exposure to art also improves students’ empathy and perspective-taking skills, as well as building narrative competence and meaning making'.

An attitude problem

Rudolf Arnheim’s seminal text Visual Thinking (1969), a methodology of visual perception as cognitive activity, describes how scientific disciplines dismiss or diminish the value of the arts.

'[The arts] contribute indispensably to the development of a reasoning and imaginative human being [..] the arts are neglected because they are based on perception and perception is disdained because it is not assumed to involve thought.'

Significantly, he believes that the fault lies with the art educators and art institutions. Arnheim suggests that the neglect begins early on in education, when, 'the senses begin to loose educational status'.

Arnheim believes that art educators have not stated their case convincingly enough and institutions have glorified art to a point where it has become inaccessible, creating an attitudinal divide between the arts and science fields.

John Dewey’s philosophy for education models itself on the development of attitudes and their importance towards learning. It is because of an attitude that one gives something its value. He writes in his text Experience and Education (1963): 'Attitudes and interests are built up which embody in themselves some deposit of the meaning of things done and undergone.'

Dewey addresses the ideas surrounding the advices of why attitudes need to be changed in medical students and in why collateral learning or multidisciplinary learning is important – it equips the student with the capacity to cope.

Medical Humanities: the answer to burnout?

The Medical Humanities theorise that art and science are irrefutably linked, and that humanism must accompany scientific skill in the ‘good’ medico. Medical Humanities programs aim to provide the students with visual observation tools, in that equipping the students with the knowledge of how to look will help them understand how to connect with artworks. Providing students with the right tools and tailored programs the humanities may help change attitudes towards the arts.

If Medical Humanities programs can change attitudes towards the arts then a resulting behavioural change would be ongoing engagement with the arts. This engagement would promote wellbeing, escape and relaxation in their stressful lives important to help prevent burnout.

Working in the arts, it is often hard to see that these environments may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Many people do not know how to engage with art and the humanities, and as arts workers, it is our responsibility to ensure that this is not overlooked. The arts can be accessed by everyone if they are given a suitable setting, the right tools and the opportunity to engage with it.

With burnout and mental health on the line, we cannot afford to be exclusive.

About the author

Bec Capp involves herself with creative projects encompassing great art and thoughtful design, with a focus on emerging art and accessibility.

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