Taking care of the caretakers: inside St. Joe's art therapy sessions

Art therapist Sharon Trottier leads drop-in sessions for staffers to colour in mandalas to cope with the hospital's high-stress environment

Art therapist Sharon Trottier leads sessions for staffers in the high-stress environment at the hospital

St. Joe's West 5th campus staff members take some time out to pause and focus on the soothing colours of the mandalas that Sharon Trottier provides. (Mahnoor Yawar/CBC)

For the many professionals who provide mental health care at Hamilton's St. Joseph's West 5th campus, there's plenty of exposure to the different kinds of therapy provided to patients.

But the demands of the job, with staffers interacting with unpredictable cases day in and day out, can take its toll.

Since the caretakers also need taking care of, St. Joe's has incorporated a unique weekly program to provide a quiet moment of escape during the day. And it involves some adult colouring as therapy.

The program is part of St. Joseph's Employee Wellness Program provides resources and programming to promote health of "mind, body and spirit." 

Once a week, for half an hour during their lunch break, employees have a chance to gather in a small group in the library and pause during their frenetic day to slowly, methodically colour in elaborate mandalas. 

Sharon Trottier, the facilitator of St. Joe's art therapy sessions for employee wellness. (Mahnoor Yawar/CBC)

Sharon Trottier, the group facilitator, describes herself as an "outsider artist." She has no formal training in art, but has used drawing and painting in some form all her life to cope.

As a former employee at St. Joe's, she saw it as the best place to bring her grad project to life and help out in an environment she understands.

"Art can alleviate a lot of stress, and it can be relaxing. Knowing the circumstances inside a really busy hospital, I saw this as an opportunity to... see if the session improved their mood," she says.

"I wanted to focus on a group that's under a lot of stress, and focus on what kind of stressors they have."

Trottier cites a number of sources show that mental health workers are often exposed to patients with behavioural issues or even abusive tendencies. The hospital created its wellness programming with that in mind.

St. Joe's West 5th campus staff members take some time out to pause and focus on the soothing colours of the mandalas that Sharon Trottier provides. (Mahnoor Yawar/CBC)

"Our motto is: 'We best take care of our patients when we take care of ourselves,'" says Tiffany Wong, coordinator of the Employee Wellness program.

"The art therapy sessions provide a chance to pause during our day, something fun to foster creativity, to build community in the hospital, to offer stress relief, and something nice to take back."

The Mindful Mandalas Project borrows a page from the adult colouring craze, while offering staffers a chance to take their creations back to their desks.

As part of a recognized field of mental health care, it combines creative expression with psychotherapy. 

(Mahnoor Yawar/CBC)

"I have a mindfulness practice of my own, and wanted to supplement that," said Julie Vohra, a patient relations and risk management specialist at the hospital, who has attended a number of the sessions. "To take a break in the day is really great, and when you come back to work, you just have a new perspective on it."

She said part of the enjoyment of the program alone was being surrounded by other people indulging in the same exercise of letting their thoughts focus on one activity.

Julie Vohra (Mahnoor Yawar/CBC)

"When you do an activity with other people, there is a sense of fellowship and shared space where we can just support each other and meet to do the activity together. It's also inspiring to see what other people create, and to learn more about the benefits of art therapy," said Vohra.

Trottier, whose work will also be part of an upcoming publication on eating disorders, hopes more people can be aware of the benefits of art therapy as a way to treat mental health issues.

"It's important that people know that you can see an art therapist who's a registered psychotherapist, and have more one-on-one sessions. Art therapy is not about the end product, it's more about the process."

(Mahnoor Yawar/CBC)