For doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals, the psychological toll of their environment, as well covered in Med Brief Africa in recent weeks, can lead to anxiety, burnout, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A new research lab led by Dr. Marc Moss, vice chair for Clinical Research in the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver, is gearing up to see if creative arts therapies could be harnessed to help critical care health professionals cope with the emotional and psychological demands of their work.

Creative arts therapies (CAT) use different art forms—music, dance, visual art, drama—to help patients improve communication, expression, and emotional, cognitive, or social functioning. Rather than asking patients to talk about what’s going on in their lives, CAT engages them with different mediums that they can use to explore what might be hard to put into words.

About 15 years ago, Moss started looking into the psychological health of critical care nurses after some of his research coordinators for another project told him that the very symptoms he was researching in patients—anxiety, PTSD, etc.—were symptoms that they had experienced as health care professionals.

Over the last several years, he’s investigated the effectiveness of mindfulness-based cognitive therapies for critical care nurses. In 2018, Moss saw a call from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for research lab proposals involving the arts, health, and social/emotional wellbeing, and his research radar pinged.

The lab is partnering with the Ponzio program at Children’s, as well as Lighthouse Writers Workshop, to develop its program and study protocols. According to Moss, they’re currently planning to conduct two six-month clinical trials with cohorts of 75 people for each trial, all critical care health professionals. Fifteen individuals in each cohort will serve as a control group. Participants will experience creative arts therapy 12 times (twice a month) over the six-month periods. These first rounds of studies will focus on designing the therapies to be acceptable to participants and evaluating how feasible it is for participants to complete the program, with plans for a larger study later on that will focus on the effectiveness of CAT for building resiliency and wellness.

At Children’s Hospital, the Ponzio Creative Arts Therapy Program is part of psychiatric patients’ daily treatment. Many of the patients are introduced to art journaling—they’re given a blank book of about 80 pages and encouraged to fill it with words and images, using whatever mediums they enjoy. There are reportedly countless stories of how CAT has helped both patients and Children’s Hospital personnel, some of whom now organize their work schedules so they can attend CAT sessions.

Michael Henry, executive director of Lighthouse, has seen similar effects from writing workshops with various populations, including people experiencing homelessness and those living with cancer diagnoses. “You have these experiences and they can break apart your sense of reality,” he says. “Constructing it in a narrative is a tangible way of taking that broken apart experience and putting it together—and by doing that, you gain control over it, so it ceases to have control over you.”