The Artistic Psychiatrist

October 5, 2010

For some, creating art may be a displacement of issues and conflicts that we encounter in our work and personal lives. It can express things that can't be formulated in verbal content, as has been shown in art therapy with patients.

No, the title does not refer to the clinical art of being a mental health clinician. Of that, we certainly do still need the art of psychiatry, as many patient problems need some sort of creative solution. This is why the "cookie cutter" diagnostic criteria of the DSM and "evidence-based guidelines" for treatment usually do not adequately reflect the individuality and unique challenges of each

patient.

But more of that for another blog. Rather, here I am referring to psychiatrists who create art. If you don't know of any, you ought to come to the exhibit of the Art Association of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) at the annual APA meeting. If you are an artist who hasn't exhibited there, join and exhibit! The contact information is:

Gail Barton, M.D.
Treasurer of APA Art Association
29 N. Main St.
Windsor, VT 05089
email: gmbart@myfairpoint.net

I must ethically disclose my bias in these recommendations. Although I do not consider myself to be an artist, my wife does. She thinks the map collages of trips that I do qualify as folk or outsider art. Given that "outsider artists" are considered to be self-taught and have some sort of psychiatric problem, maybe that does fit. Since I've learned that my wife is usually right, I gave in and exhibited some of my work at the meeting this year in New Orleans. I hoped there would be other amateur artists like myself there.

Then, what do you know? I won a first place award for a photo collage of my wife! Here, too, I don't think that it was my artistic skill, but more her beauty that was reflected and grabbed attention. I even borrowed the cubist style of Picasso.

And, truth be told, the association was quite generous in the awards, though many other submissions seemed to be of quite high quality. Family of psychiatrists were also eligible to exhibit and some of them were full-time artists.

Most everyone was kind and supportive. One of the founders, and current treasurer, told me that the organization started in the 1970s. She notes that "some feel it is the one place they can come during the APA Meeting where they can be grounded, find a moment of peace, and enjoy conversation and creativity related issues rather than meds and struggles of their day to day practices." Viewers have been substantial in numbers and get to vote on the artwork. Some are even sold.

It seemed to me that even outside of the exhibit space, that our art was one way we helped ourselves recoup from the stress of our work and help prevent burnout. In so doing, that may in turn help to reduce unprofessional conduct and maintain altruism, as a recent study of medical students indicated.1

For some, creating art may be a displacement of issues and conflicts that we encounter in our work and personal lives. It can express things that can't be formulated in verbal content, as has been shown in art therapy with patients. At its deepest, artistic creation at times may be part of a process for self-healing, as it was for Jung. Jung's belatedly–and just released–The Red Book, includes his own paintings. This is one way, in the Jungian concept of archetypes in our collective unconscious, to heal the "wounded healer".

I know there are other psychiatrists and mental health professionals who produce other kinds of creative work. Indeed, Psychiatric Times has long featured "Poetry of the Times" for one prominent example. For over 10 years, Richard Berlin, MD has published a monthly poem in this publication. In the 10 year anniversary of his column, Dr. Berlin commented: "I have come to believe that every doctor (and every psychiatrist) carries a black bag filled with poetry." To encourage others in health care to write poetry, as well as to honor his father, he created the Gerald F. Berlin Creative Writing Prize. Though I have never entered such a contest, I have tried at times to pull out a poem, including this brief haiku:

The psychiatrist
Trying to change the inside
Outside of ourselves

Are there others of you we don't know about? If so, please comment. If not the arts, how else do you unwind and refresh yourself in this day and age of high productivity demands? Exercise? Yoga? Meditation? Travel? Sports?

As one of my patients recently told me: "It must be hard for you, too, hearing our side of things. Take care of yourself, too."

References:

Dyrbye LN, Massie FS Jr, Eacker A, et al. The relationship between burnout and professional conduct and attitudes among US medical students. JAMA. 2010;304:1173-1180.