When second lady Karen Pence first observed an art therapy session in 2006, she was amazed by the children who kept asking when they could return to the hospital just so they could participate in another session.
Witnessing the power of art therapy, she told a group of board members and staff at Dell Children’s Medical Center on Wednesday, compelled her to champion it as her key issue. She calls her initiative “Art Therapy: Healing with the HeART.”
While at the medical center, Pence, who was in Austin along with her husband, Vice President Mike Pence, met with 6-year-old Chloee, who recently had a brain tumor removed and undergoes in-patient art therapy as part of her rehabilitation. Chloee and art therapist Elizabeth Hendley worked on a watercolor piece while Pence watched the pink and blue painting come together.
“I think it’s beautiful,” Pence told Chloee, whose motor skills are improving after her surgery a few weeks ago.
Pence, an award-winning watercolor artist who earned a master’s degree in art education, said she wants the public to understand that “art therapy is not arts and crafts.” With her initiative, she said, Pence hopes to “elevate the profession so that people recognize that art therapy is a mental health profession” and encourage young people to pursue it as a career.
The medical center has had an art therapy program since shortly after it opened a decade ago. Young patients experiencing trauma, severe illness or injury are referred to a registered art therapist by physicians, nurses or other members of the clinical team. According to the medical center, the artwork is used as a tool to process thoughts and feelings around hospitalization and provides children with coping skills.
“Art therapy helps kids emote and express their inner feelings,” said Debra Brown, chief operating officer and vice president of patient care services at Dell Children’s Medical Center. When children are able to express how they feel, she said, doctors can address mental health needs. “It’s an extraordinary way to begin to heal.”
In 2018, the hospital plans to build a mental health unit for children and adolescents that will expand on its expressive therapies, which include art and music therapy. At the new unit, Dell Children’s Medical Center also will offer drama therapy.