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Healing through art How creativity can counteract isolation in chronically ill children

Helene Hugel of Helium Arts explains how creative therapies can help young people with long-term illnesses.

IMAGINE YOU ARE a young person living with a lifelong illness such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis, juvenile arthritis or cerebral palsy.

These conditions are not just physically debilitating, they also impose significant social and emotional burdens.

Daily life is punctuated by hospital visits, rigorous treatment regimens, and periods of isolation to prevent infection or manage symptoms.

The ability to participate in day-to-day activities is often severely impaired, making it challenging to build and maintain friendships.

In Ireland, approximately 12% of children live with the effects of illness or disability. Recent findings from the Growing Up in Ireland report, “The Changing Social Worlds of 13-Year-Olds,” paint a concerning picture of the evolving social landscapes of our youth.

One of the report’s most striking revelations is the shrinking circle of close friendships among 13-year-olds, with 53% of young teens now reporting having just three or fewer close friends, a significant increase from 41% a decade ago.

Creativity as healing

At Helium Arts, we are dedicated to providing free artist-led creative workshops in hospital paediatric outpatient clinics. We deliver them in the community and online to children and young people living with lifelong physical health conditions.

We have long been aware of the consequences of reduced and poorer-quality social connections for many children in this position, but we are also uniquely placed to help them through our innovative programmes.

Beyond the immediate health challenges, these children face broader societal obstacles. Social stigmas and a lack of understanding can lead to bullying and exclusion, further exacerbating feelings of isolation.

This is where art and creativity can make a profound impact.

Our creative workshops offer a unique avenue for expression, connection and healing.
They provide children with a safe space to explore their emotions, communicate their experiences, and engage with peers who understand their journey.

We reduce barriers to participating in art activities by provision of medical support in the room, using accessible venues and providing one to one support through volunteers who support the artist. We also provide our workshops as close to family homes as is possible, and in the heart of their communities.

The non-verbal nature of art allows for the expression of complex feelings that might be difficult to articulate otherwise.

At Helium Arts, we have seen firsthand the incredible benefits of our creative programmes.

Our work has shown that when children are given the opportunity to create and express themselves through art, they experience significant improvements in their mental and emotional well-being.

The friendships formed in our group sessions often extend beyond the art workshop, providing a lasting support network.

Releasing the stress

Recent research we conducted found 84% of children who attended art therapy workshops said they now felt happier when visiting the hospital for treatment. All of the parents surveyed felt this kind of therapy had had a positive impact on their child’s mood, while 97% of medical professionals reported that their experience of delivering healthcare to children with lifelong physical health conditions was positively impacted.

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Healing needs to happen, of course in medical settings, but it is not the whole story. This kind of therapy can truly assist children who might be holding on to the stress of what they’ve been through in the medical setting. 

For many children, creative outlets like this become a vital tools for self-expression and emotional release, allowing them the opportunity to make friends and find peer support. One participant, a young girl with hydrocephalus and epilepsy, shared how creative therapy helped her feel less alone and more connected to others facing similar challenges. Through creating art pieces in our workshops, she found a way to express her fears and hopes, which in turn helped her build stronger relationships with her peers and family.

This sense of connection and understanding is invaluable and highlights the importance of keeping young people engaged through these creative programmes.

The importance of such engagement cannot be overstated; keeping young people involved in creative activities helps them build essential life skills, enhances their emotional resilience, and fosters a sense of purpose and belonging, allowing them to find their tribe.

As they navigate the complexities of their illnesses, these programmes provide a critical support system that can significantly enhance their quality of life.

Although the Growing Up in Ireland report highlights a concerning trend of diminishing friendships among young people, it also underscores the critical need for interventions that foster connection and support.

Creative programmes can offer a powerful solution. By harnessing the healing power of creativity, we can help children with long-term illnesses build meaningful relationships, express themselves and navigate their unique challenges with greater resilience and hope.

Helene Hugel is CEO of Helium Arts, which is hosting a week-long celebration of its work at Naughton Institute (the former Science Gallery) at Trinity College Dublin, Pearse St from Tuesday, 11 June.

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