Back in the early 2000s, I organised for Doctors training to be General Practitioners (or Family Doctors) to go on a field trip to a gallery of psychiatric art in Melbourne.  These doctors were known as GP registrars, and my role was that of Medical Educator/Senior Lecturer.

The visit was seen to be a radical idea at the time, and my boss needed a fair bit of convincing as to why registrars should be spending time doing this, rather than learning more practical things. However I was very aware that art and other humanities such as literature were being used increasingly in medical education to gain insights into patients’ experiences of illness and to foster empathy.

The gallery, known as ‘The Cunningham Dax Gallery of Psychiatric Art’ is named after Dr Eric Cunningham Dax, a psychiatrist who started the collection in 1952.

The objectives of the half day session were:

  • to enhance GP Registrars’ empathy for patients with mental health problems;
  • to assist GP Registrars’ understanding of the illness experience of patients with mental health problems,
  • and to give GP Registrars further strategies to assist patients with a mental illness.

The Director of the gallery at the time was Dr Eugen Koh, a psychiatrist, artist and former GP. He gave us a tour of the gallery. This included showing us a selection of pictures, paintings, clay sculptures and tapestries. The pieces of art were displayed in different sections of the gallery according to the artists’ mental illness diagnosis, such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

We were also shown a series of illness experience paintings , illustrating the emotions of two patients – one who suffered a heart attack, and another who had a traumatic labour and subsequently developed post-natal depression. The pictures conveyed the dehumanizing effects of being in hospital in a very powerful way.

I facilitated a debriefing session immediately afterwards. Many registrars commented on how the illness experience paintings evoked strong feelings within themselves. Some of them recognised their role in having treated hospital patients in a dehumanizing way, and they expressed feelings of grief or guilt about this.

Participants were then asked to draw a picture and write a reflection about the visit.

Examples of written comments included:

‘I will more carefully explore people’s illness experience and attempt to help them express it’.

‘I feel I understand some of the loss, despair, isolation, loneliness and shame that people may have about their psychiatric illnesses. I think it has made me more empathetic’.

‘I will encourage art as a form of therapy, just as I now encourage relaxation and exercise’.

The session concluded with several case studies I presented. They illustrated how the use of art had been used as a healing modality for several of my patients, particularly when they may not have been able to verbalise their feelings about traumatic experiences.

It therefore pleases me to see that The Cunningham Dax Collection has expanded to include artworks made by people who have experienced trauma.  These include the Childhood Abuse Collection, the Holocaust Collection, the Tsunami Collection, the Safe Havens Asylum Seekers Collection and the Bushfire Collection.

Bookings for tours are available for the general public, as well as for secondary and tertiary students.