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How art and social media helps us understand what it's like to be ill

International symposium in Cork to hear how experience of illness expressed through music, dialogue, fiction, film and other arts – as well as through social media.

Paul Seawright photograph from a health clinic (2005) is part of the art exhibition in Glucksman Gallery, UCC.
Paul Seawright photograph from a health clinic (2005) is part of the art exhibition in Glucksman Gallery, UCC.
Image: Paul Seawright via Lewis Glucksman Gallery

THE ROLE OF social media sites and of the arts and humanities in helping people to cope with illness is to be explored in Cork at the end of this month.

A free symposium called The Experience of Illness: Learning from the Arts will take place at UCC on Friday, 30 November and Saturday, 1 December. The conference will hear from speakers, including Morning Ireland broadcaster Aine Lawlor and comedian/writer Anne Gildea, who have both suffered cancer, as well as lectures from scientists, medical experts and artists.

Fergus Shanahan, Professor of Medicine at UCC and director of the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre there, explained that improving our ability to cope with illness requires more than just scientific and medical advances. He also hoped that the symposium and an accompanying art exhibition might help foster understanding of what people go through when battling a disease or illness. He said:

Few are spared the experience of illness or can avoid being touched by it, either personally or because of the misfortune of a loved one. Kindness, compassion and concern for the dignity of those who suffer do not come naturally and need fostering. This is best achieved with some understanding of the human experience of illness…

While science can teach us much about disease, only the arts and humanities can offer us an understanding of what it feels like to be ill. This symposium will offer an overview of illness as expressed, not only in the visual arts, but also in music, fiction, film, poetry, dialogue and narrative.

Other speakers include Dr Kay Jamison, head of Psychiatry at John Hopkins University in the US and author of several works explaining the interface between creativity and psychiatry, musicians Eleanor McEvoy and Iarla Ó Lionáird, and other academics and artists.

The importance of communication of a patient’s experience is highlighted. Anne Gildea, for example, will speak about how comedy helped her express her fight with breast cancer, while the Abbot of Glenstal Mark Hederman will speak on writing as a form of expression. A speaker from Marymount Hospice in Cork will touch on how social media has helped her patients to deal with illness.

This relatively new form of self-expression can be very powerful – TheJournal.ie reported in September on this moving series of tweets issued by businesswoman Aileen O’Toole. O’Toole, MD of Amas internet consultancy, took to Twitter to tell of her “year from hell”, tagged #mycancerstory, over the course of one day. The series of tweets gained traction on social media and on our site, with commenters volunteering their own stories and shared experience of suffering cancer, or coping with illness in a loved one.

The symposium in Cork is free to attend but pre-registration is essential. You can do that here.

If you can’t attend that, there is an exhibition of art, Living/Loss: the Experience of Illness in Art, running from Friday, 23 November until Sunday, 10 March of next year, at the Glucksman Gallery in UCC. Fiona Kearney, director of Glucksman Gallery, said that it helped the university art gallery to “connect the research of our scholars with a wider audience”. The artworks include tongue-in-cheek pharmaceutical graphics from Damien Hirst, candid self-portraits of Jo Spence during her cancer treatment and compassionate portraits of patients by Cecily Brennan.

#Mycancerstory: The most powerful story on Twitter today>

Comedian Anne Gildea lays bare cancer experience>

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