Art for health and self

Parkinsons submission by Mao Fong Lim

I am an artist, medical student and an aspiring psychiatrist. As a Malaysian abroad, I’m always asked why I chose to come here for medical school. While reputation was the initial impetus, I realised that I wanted this to be a broader journey of self-development and discovery. I wanted to be able to explore the arts and humanities alongside medicine – and I am glad to say I have held true to that intention.

I never actually called myself an artist until I got to my second year of medical school. What changed?

Emotional Cartography by Mao Fong Lim
Emotional Cartography by Mao Fong Lim

Perhaps I started to grow jaded of content-laden lectures with little clinical context.

Perhaps, it was modules and conferences exploring the interaction between the arts, medicine and psychiatry, as well as meeting clinicians who were also artists (they’re not mythical creatures!).

Perhaps, it was a pivotal conversation in the Maudsley with a young woman who had attempted to end her own life. Completely out of my depth “medically”, we found common ground in art, as artists – the start of an uplifting conversation.

Whatever it was, something clicked for me that year. My perspective on medicine had been cracked wide open. I realised that creativity was at the core of my identity. My journey through medicine would be coloured and explored through art – reminding myself of the why, as well as who I was, protecting the humanity within from being burnt out. I wanted more of my fellow students – my fellow clinicians of the future to experience it, formally or otherwise.

Thus, with the help of fellow like-minded students, the King’s College London Health Humanities Society (HealthHums) was formed. It grew from a collective desire – for a space and platform to explore health and creativity – as well as a frustration that even in a multi faculty university like King’s, we saw little interaction between the health schools and the humanities side across the river. This was a niche interest that needed to be brought into the mainstream. We decided – if the school won’t do it, the students will.

Since then, we’ve brought together a community driven by our diverse but common interests, putting together conferences and events to spark awareness of how arts can work in health, showing our fellow students (and even faculty members) what is possible. We’re humbled to have connected key faculty members across General Practice, the Dental Institute and the Centre for Health Humanities, catalysing an inaugural Clinical Humanities programme for 2nd year medical students – from which some incredibly moving and insightful work has emerged.

Amid the discussion about top-down approaches to integrating arts in health into medical training, we must not forget the synergistic role of student societies in stimulating interest and demand from the grassroots. As such, we are starting to form a network of students interested in health and humanities, sharing ideas and supporting the formation of similar societies across other universities. We recommend this as one of the practical steps that can be taken, modelled after initiatives such as the Arts and Health ECRN (Early Career Research Network).

Tunnel Vision by Mao Fong Lim
Tunnel Vision by Mao Fong Lim

HealthHums seems to have sprouted at a very apt time, converging with the work of the King’s Cultural Institute – which is actively building bridges within the Arts and Health landscape at King’s, connecting artists and researchers, organising Arts in Health hackathons, among many other initiatives. On a wider scale, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing is leading the way. Their comprehensive, thoughtful Creative Health report is a great evidence base that I have personally brought up time and time again to illustrate the potential and potency of arts in health.

Despite all this – I must admit that I haven’t had the opportunity to witness many of these fantastic interventions in action. While I frequent the Dragon Café in Southwark, I have yet to see for myself the Singing for Better Breathing Choir, or the Breathe Magic camp for children with hemiplegia, just to name a few. Scepticism towards the arts and humanities is strong amongst medical students and faculty alike. With a wealth of activity around the country, I think that the opportunity for clinicians and students to witness arts in health programmes in action will have a powerful effect on their perspective.

In short, I strongly believe in the role of arts in the training of health professionals. Art is a powerful reminder and expression of individuality and self, reminding clinicians not just of the person behind the disease – but also of themselves, the person behind the clinical veneer. Applied, the arts are a potent addition to our biopsychosocial approach. Even as the evidence base builds, seeing is believing – and getting clinicians to observe or participate in arts in health interventions may nudge their perspective in this matter. Ultimately, I believe the future of arts in health depends on winning the support of students of today – the clinicians of tomorrow.

Mao Fong Lim
Photo: Arina Tetera

Mao Fong Lim




Cover image: Parkinsons submission by Mao Fong Lim


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