Research turns trauma healing into art form

Special to Western News

Artist Holly Patrick drew on research dealing with the experiences of traumatized mothers-to-be in this painting of a mother’s hand protecting her child from violence.

They were pregnant women, traumatized by violence at the hands of an intimate partner. They had trepidations about giving birth and were fearful the layers of harm they’d experienced would weigh down them and their children.

Then PATH – Promoting Attachment Through Healing, a pilot program of trauma-informed cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – began to reshape their futures.

Research conducted with 60 women from 2018-19 showed the traumatized women learned more effective coping skills, reported improved mental health and believed themselves better able to manage the challenges of new motherhood, all as a result of the program.

“This was a very positive, life-changing intervention,” said Nursing professor Kimberley Jackson, a co-investigator on the project with Health Studies professor Tara Mantler. The original research with the women took place through London Health Sciences Centre and was funded by Women’s XChange.

It was important work and the outcomes were worth sharing in a scholarly journal, Jackson said. But the researchers believed the story would have more reach if also amplified beyond that limited audience.

“Once we did the analysis and realized the powerful journey these women were on, we knew we needed to do more,” Mantler said.

Enter visual art and poetry as a way to illuminate their research.

Debora Van Brenk // Western NewsWestern professors Tara Chantler and Kimberley Jackson were co-investigators in a study that identified cognitive behavioural therapy as helpful for traumatized mothers-to-be. They then had that research translated to visual art and poetry.

When the study was complete, the pair, along with Brock University professor Sheila O’Keefe-McCarthy, set about amplifying their work through research-creativity, a relatively new idea in which arts and data are intertwined to make a greater whole.

In the corollary project funded by Western, they commissioned artists, photographers, a sculptor and poet who used the analysis as the foundation for illustrating the changes the PATH intervention had wrought.

That art-research integration became four poems and nine pieces of visual art that travel the women’s transformation through trauma to triggered thoughts and brokenness to healing as they navigated the health system.

“It’s like a journey. It starts out with not knowing what the future is going to hold and moving towards a trajectory that says their trauma is part of them but doesn’t define them,” Jackson said.

One piece, for example, shows a mother’s upraised hand protectively coming between a clenched fist and a child’s small hand.

Holly Patrick said in her artist statement that the image shows how a mother can turn the darkest moments of her life into strength that can protect a family.

A poem by O’Keefe-McCarthy entitled Imperfectly Perfect summarizes that journey with these lines: “I have value! // Oh Yes, I am imperfect … which … for me – is just perfect.”

Special to Western NewsArtist Christian Szynal’s ‘Now Perfectly Imperfect’ depicts a traumatized mother-to-be’s ‘after’ self (a companion piece to a ‘before’ black-and-white spiral symbolizing her struggle), which represents the woman’s recognition of her worth.

Mantler and Jackson presented their analysis and artwork for a presentation in October, in front of researchers and professionals working with traumatized women and mothers – the approach attracting interest beyond the academic community.

It was among several projects highlighted in a recent research-creation event organized by Don Wright Faculty of Music professor Emily Abrams Ansari to showcase the interdisciplinary intersection of art and research.

Mantler said the CBT trial was an abbreviated version of what the researchers still hope can receive support and funding. They also hope a future iteration could include the women themselves creating art to express their journey.