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Front Page Feature – Mississauga News: Here’s why arts could soon help Peel residents heal

Published in the Mississauga News on October 14, 2021

From depression to concussion recovery. Arts have helped local residents take their lives back

When Christine Long learned she had multiple sclerosis, it hit very suddenly while she was walking across a parking lot.

“It felt like something was tearing inside my brain,” she said, explaining she quickly ended up in hospital unable to use the right side of her body, unable to focus her eyes, sick to her stomach, speechless.

“It was pretty frightening,” she said, remembering the long hospital stay and rehabilitation.

When released from hospital, Long was signed up for an occupational therapy program designed for people facing disability and illness.

“We asked for something different,” she said, trading in board games for paint palettes with an artist who worked with the group.

Many of the people in the program were just like her, people who had lives and careers abruptly cut off by a life-altering illness. They had lived through something many others don’t survive, and some were unable to speak.

“A lot of people could express emotion through colour,” she said. “This was a big deal … it was an amazing experience; there was laughter, tears.”

When funding ran out for the program, Long pursued her own interests in painting, trying to rewire pathways in her brain by learning something new.

“I happen to be good at abstract art,” she said, adding that she has regained some mobility and rebuilt her life.

“I think it saves lives,” she said of art.

The Mississauga Arts Council agrees and is hosting a conference to develop a program to integrate arts into the medical system in Peel region.

“Literally, when you hear someone say, ‘Music saved my life’…they’re not kidding,” said Mike Douglas, executive director of the Mississauga Arts Council.

He said that there are so many artists that would love to use their work and passion to help heal others, and that the connection between art and therapy are well established.

The American Art Therapy Association research committee has collected numerous resources and studies that find positive mental health outcomes for patients facing substance abuse, infertility, bereavement, dementia and so much more.

Douglas says that art therapy is the number 1 treatment for concussions at Mind Forward Brain Injury Clinic in Mississauga.

Local artist Angela Chao can vouch for this: she suffered a number of concussions working on set in the film industry and found herself miserable after physically recovering.

She started doodling and drawing, which eventually blossomed into a passion for painting, making more than 500 pieces.

She has won numerous awards for her work and now gives watercolor lessons, focusing on how arts acts an emotional release, stress relief and an escape.

It’s not just visual arts, either.

Singing and dancing, theatre, writing and more all have applications in healing.

Douglas says that the goal is to offer doctors something like a checklist of different types of art to refer a patient to, based on what might work best.

“The benefits are profound and life-altering,” Douglas said. “We have to integrate the arts into health care, that’s our goal.”