Art Therapy for Diabetes

Lee Ann Thill is a dear diabetes blogger in The Butter Compartment. I remember when she appeared on the scene a few years back, and told us exactly what she did for a living. All I could think at the time was, “what the heck?”   Seems like I am not alone. A big hug goes out to Lee Ann for breaking new ground — and obviously for sharing her ideas with us today at the ‘Mine!

A Guest Post by Lee Ann Thill

“I am an art therapist, and I specialize in treating people with diabetes.”

Pause. If I had one of these cool animation X-rays, the sort I vaguely recall Bugs Bunny having, I got the feeling I’d see the cranial brakes spinning wildly since my curious conversation partner tried to envision that the mutant offspring of two seemingly unrelated vocations juggling defunct cells. Occasionally, I will encounter someone who has some familiarity with my profession, but compared to, oh, let’s say, accountants, art therapists are few and far between. The wheels prevent spinning, and the momentary pause is accompanied by:

I have had innumerable versions of this exchange over the years. The brief explanation is that I provide psychotherapy, but rather than only speaking, clients also make art with me as a means of expressing and exploring the problems that caused them to treatment, and the possible answers to those problems. While I am one of several in my profession who help people with difficulties like depression or relationship conflict, I am one of a very few who do so specifically with diabetes patients.

I waited for the response to my short description, and not suddenly, my dialogue partner waved a hand, as if I’d offered them a box of markers and a drawing tablet, and demanded they be the next Picasso, and they emphatically exclaimed:

“I couldn’t draw a straight line when I had a ruler, rather than graduated from stick figures”

Little do they know, the best thing about art therapy is that there isn’t any talent required. If you stare at various BG readings day in and day out, readings which can make you feel “bad”, or just like you have done something “wrong”, doing something which’s always right – and I mean, ALWAYS – is an oasis in a sea of used test strips and nourishment labels. Anyone who can pull a pencil across a piece of newspaper to create a mark, or paste magazine images to a collage is qualified to do art therapy. In reality, as counter-intuitive as it seems, it can be surprising that people with formal art training sometimes become frustrated using art treatment since they have a tendency to get overly worried about being technically skillful. Rather than letting go and enjoying the practice of publicly creating, they’re inundated by their self-critic. However, once an artist, or a non-artist for that matter, can set aside their inner critic, they can see that art therapy is an art action in which you can do no wrong; everybody is considered an artist, and every object of art is valuable as it’s infused with personal meaning, created within the context of a trusting relationship with a supportive therapist that will probably make you feel like you are the next Picasso, even in the event that you have not taken an art course since you’re in 5th grade.

What does art treatment have to do with diabetes though, some of you may be wondering. Consider this your spoiler alert – diabetes can be frustrating! Some people experience depression or anxiety. Some have issues with body image or meals. There are people that have a lot of relationship conflict over diabetes care. Diabetes can leave some people feeling angry, resentful and bitter, or sometimes it makes people close their eyes and stick their fingers in their ears, so to speak, since the nearest any of us can get to escaping from it’s ignoring it, which naturally, never ends well. This is the case of the recently diagnosed, diabetes “veterans”, young and old, type 1’s, type 2’s and type 3.

As we’re vulnerable to the tear and wear diabetes puts in your body, we’re similarly prone to psychological wear and tear, and diabetes can dole out that just like fountains of glitter — it gets everywhere, it is difficult to clean, and you are going to be discovering the evidence for a long time to come. Letting the wear and tear persist can add to the physical wear and tear, and it turns into a vicious cycle. (Disclaimer: I actually love glitter, clutter or not.)

Perhaps you’re nodding since you get it. You understand. However, did you know that a paintbrush or even papier-mÃcentsché could possibly break this routine, maybe reversing some of their wear and tear?

Sometimes we can shake a diabetes funk in our own, or with the assistance of family members and friends, but sometimes we need extra assistance. While most people looking for help in the form of counselling automatically turn to traditional talk therapy, for example using a psychologist or social worker, to resolve issues, art treatment is an option that is at least as powerful, and is often more efficient as artistic expression is similar to the non-stop path to a number of our stickier, more embarrassing feelings, provided you utilize a trained art therapist. Trying art treatment for the very first time can be intimidating, but once you get past the initial discomfort, then you’ll begin to forego the voice in your head that says you are not a good artist. Once you’ve done that, it is not a far leap to dismiss the voice which criticizes your diabetes-related choices. If you do the best that you can with modeling clay, and you can be proud of your efforts, why can’t you’re OK with your very best effort at being a surrogate pancreas? Whether you’re in the easel or programming your insulin pump, good enough IS good enough!

Most people are really surprised by how much they like art treatment once they attempt it, how much they understand about themselves from doing it, and what a difference it makes in how they deal with diabetes. As no one actually “has” diabetes unless they reside, the exact same can be said of art treatment. So locate an art therapist, and also dive into that sea of coloured tissue paper since “getting” art treatment, means getting your hands dirty, both figuratively and literally.

Lee Ann’s art treatment practice is located just outside Philadelphia in Oaklyn, NJ. In addition to individual and group services for patients with diabetes, she offers off-site workshops for both patient and professional classes. To find a credentialed art therapist in your country, visit the Art Therapy Credentials Board.

Disclaimer: Content created by the Diabetes Mine team. For more details click here.


This content is made for Diabetes Mine, a customer health blog focused on the diabetes community. The content is not medically reviewed and doesn’t adhere to Healthline’s editorial guidelines. To learn more regarding Healthline’s venture with Diabetes Mine, please click here.

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