“I am an art therapist at a psychiatric hospital in Edinburgh. I work with adults on acute inpatient wards who have been admitted because they are in crisis; usually in huge emotional distress. The patients I encounter often say they are confused or overwhelmed by their thoughts and emotions, and feel they cannot cope with them. My role is to connect with patients by making art together, and help them relax, feel listened to, safe, and better able to think about whatever is going on for them.
COVID-19 restrictions have brought barriers to the ways I normally build relationships. Wearing a face mask means patients have to try to get a sense of who I am and my responses from just my eyes, eyebrows and forehead. Also, my time on the wards is kept to a minimum giving me fewer opportunities to get to know patients or discuss art therapy before offering a session. A good chunk of this time is spent cleaning the surfaces and materials in the room I use.
However, I am starting to see how some of these barriers might help me make better connections. For instance, several patients have noticed and laughed with me about my glasses steaming up. This has opened up conversations about how difficult it can be to feel safe when something stops us from understanding other people – and that these barriers can take many forms, including delusions, anxiety, or a face mask.
Another example is how my time spent cleaning helped me empathise with one very angry, frustrated patient who was trying to work out the source of her feelings. When I suggested trying to draw these feelings, she took a large sheet of paper and pushed an oil pastel repeatedly across it, sighing heavily as she did so. Stopping, the patient said this pushing movement reminded her of cleaning, and of how much she missed looking after her young children and her home; her hospital admission meant she had lost this role. Now when I clean, I remember this is time set aside to think about and care for my patients.”