Art therapy provides vital mental health service for patients and families

Melissa Varner
June 08, 2021
Rhys standing with a walker on his birthday

Sick, scared and discouraged, Rhys Shaw says art therapy gave him the strength to keep fighting cancer.

Now 14, Rhys was diagnosed with T-lymphoblastic lymphoma, a rare form of aggressive non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, in July 2020. During chemotherapy, he had a lot of serious side effects that his dad, Hill Shaw, said were “scarier than the cancer diagnosis,” including a series of strokes and a seizure that caused him to stop breathing. He was admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) at MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital four times.

After the strokes, Rhys struggled with knowing where he was and wanting to go home. His mom, Lisa Shaw, said he even came up with escape plans and would get frustrated when no one would help him with them. One of the few people she said he trusted was board-certified art therapist Alyssa Millard.

“Art therapy was the only thing that truly brought him some joy and helped him recover after his brain injury,” Lisa Shaw said.

Art therapists are mental health professionals trained in both art and psychotherapy. “My No. 1 goal was helping Rhys understand what was going on, coping with that, and then being able to help him express it in a way that his family could understand,” Millard explained.

Abstract art painted by a pediatric cancer represents all the emotions “swirling” inside of him. The colors form a loose circle, with a thick band of red on the outside. The next ring is pink, with swaths of orange, blue, yellow, green and white inside the circle.

One of the pieces Rhys painted with Millard is an abstract of bright colors. Each color, Millard explained, represents a different emotion. “The red is the love he felt surrounded by, from his family and his care team at MUSC. The orange is anxiety, blue is sadness and yellow is joy,” she said. While Rhys couldn’t explain to her what every color meant, she said he did have a moment of insight when he realized not all his emotions toward cancer were negative.

She said it was also a breakthrough moment for Rhys’s dad. “I remember him saying, ‘I thought he (Rhys) was just a super strong, super resilient guy. I just didn't realize all of that was in there.’”

A chain of paper dolls, colored with crayons, represents the patient as he sees himself versus how the art therapist sees him. 
The dates on the back of Rhys’ paper doll is how long he thought he had been in the hospital. His mom said he had actually only been there for the month of March.

Art therapy gave Rhys an outlet to express his feelings when he didn’t quite have the words, Lisa Shaw said. It was also an outlet for her and her husband, who would spend hours at their son’s bedside without relief because of COVID-19 visitor restrictions. When Millard visited Rhys, the Shaws felt safe stepping out of the room, Shaw said. “It gave us a moment to take a breath.”

Art therapy is a complimentary service available to all patients and their families through the Arts in Healing program. The program is 100% supported by philanthropy – from the salaries of the art and music therapists to supplies like paint and paper.

While the service is free, the impact is priceless. 

“It saved us, because it gave him an outlet that we could not provide for him at a time that we were really struggling,” Shaw said. “Saying thank you isn't enough.”

A former cancer patient beams at the camera. The teenage boy is bald and wearing a T-shirt and a face mask around his neck. He is holding a brown paper bag.

Now cancer-free, Rhys said art therapy gave him the strength to keep going. “It helped me feel more confident and gave me the courage to continue fighting to get better,” he said.