Q&A: Wendy Mellaerts on visual art therapy in palliative care

Summary

A PXL University College student has won a prize from the Foundation Against Cancer for her thesis on how visual art therapy can make a big difference to patients

Expressing emotions

PXL University College student Wendy Mellaerts (pictured) has won the Foundation Against Cancer’s thesis prize in the category of human sciences, with her work on the added value of visual arts in palliative, or end of life, care. The prize is worth €1,000.

What is visual arts therapy?

It’s a kind of therapy that helps people to deal with psychological problems by creating something. It can consist of drawing, painting, clay modelling or another kind of handicraft. This way, people can express emotions that are difficult to formulate in words. I noticed during my internship in the palliative care sector that it also helps patients to leave their sickness behind for a while and concentrate on something positive. Another advantage is that the art increases patients’ self-esteem and provides them with the opportunity to give a gift to their loved ones.

What sort of art did you create with patients?

It always depends on their interests and physical capacities. One woman who was in a very weak condition was very happy because she could make a Christmas card with her favourite colours as a gift for her family. I also introduced the “emotion circle”, which patients could fill with different colours, with each colour referring to a certain emotion they felt at that moment. This also provided carers with an insight into the patient’s emotional state. Another concept is the “life line”, which features images of defining moments in a person’s life. Many patients in palliative care feel the need to evaluate their lives.

Is visual art therapy already part of palliative care in Flanders?

Not particularly. Through a survey, I found that most staff members in Flanders’ palliative care sector were unable to explain exactly what visual art therapy entails. It is mostly seen as just a way to offer patients some distraction or as therapy for children. Initiatives are necessary to ensure that visual art therapy becomes integrated into palliative care in Flanders, as is already the case in many Anglo-Saxon countries.