WVSOM’s art studio helps relieve medical school stress, reduce burnout

Physicians are entrusted with the crucial responsibility of caring for people. But as rewarding as that role can be, the long hours and constant focus on helping others can lead to stress, anxiety and, over time, burnout.

For the past two years, the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine (WVSOM) has been experimenting with an unexpected method of combating burnout among its hard-working medical students: the use of open art studios, where aspiring physicians can relax, socialize and let their creativity flow. Between four and seven times each academic year, the school schedules sessions in which students can take a break from their studies and work in artistic mediums ranging from watercolor and acrylic painting to resin art and collage.

The school provides all the necessary art supplies and can offer instruction and guidance as needed. WVSOM faculty and staff are invited to participate as well.

Ginger Conley, M.A., LPC, a learning specialist and student counselor in WVSOM’s Academic Support and Intervention Resources (ASPIRE) department, created the art studio program in 2017 after attending a conference hosted by the American Art Therapy  Association. She said research is emerging that shows creative work can have numerous benefits for people in health professions.

“This is more than just a study break,” Conley said. “They’re finding that engaging in creative arts can prevent or treat burnout and vicarious trauma in the medical profession. They’re also finding that when students engage in or talk about art, it enhances their empathy, and for the medical school population, that’s an important thing.”

The American Counseling Association defines vicarious trauma, also known as compassion fatigue, as emotional residue from working with people who have experienced trauma.

Conley cited a 2009 study that showed ICU nurses have rates of post-traumatic stress disorder similar to veterans of the war in Iraq, and a 2018 study that found that medical students’ exposure to the humanities correlates with higher levels of empathy and reduced burnout rates. Conley also is performing her own informal research with WVSOM students who take part in the program by administering a questionnaire that measures positive and negative “affect,” or emotional qualities, before and after making art.

“We’re using the PANAS scale, a positive and negative scale that is used frequently in therapy research, and even in my small sample there are statistically significant things happening in terms of improving mood,” she said.

There is also anecdotal evidence of the positive effect making art can have on those studying medicine. Aarron Ward, a student in WVSOM’s Class of 2023, has attended multiple art studios during her first months on campus and said she finds the tension-relieving and social aspects of the sessions beneficial.

“I’ve found the art studio to be very relaxing. It just kind of takes all the stress away,” Ward said as she began an acrylic painting of a winter wonderland scene. “I love it because it’s something I can do to take a break from my studies, and I’ve become good friends with another student who participates in it.”

Class of 2023 student Jourdan Katz said she enjoys having the opportunity to continue a passion she had prior to her time at WVSOM.

“I’ve always loved art, and the studios are an excuse to not give that up during medical school,” Katz said as she brushed a deep blue background over which she planned to paint mountains and aspens reminiscent of her native Colorado. “There are times that I don’t even know what I’m going to make when I start, but something clicks when I’m about halfway through and a painting comes out of it. It’s a great stress reliever.”

Date Added: 
Thursday, February 6, 2020