How Does Art Therapy Help People With Epilepsy?

Man painting a landscape
Courtney Rust/Stocksy United

As many of us know or can imagine, epilepsy has a way of marginalizing many of those diagnosed with the disease. Life is hard enough, but when it's interrupted by seizures, it can become even harder. Moreover, these seizures can happen anywhere or at any time whether it be work, on the subway, or in school. For many with epilepsy, feelings of stigmatization, sad mood, and low self-confidence become routine — all of which need treatment and therapy other than medication.

Fortunately, compassionate healthcare providers across the country devote themselves to helping people with epilepsy, including art therapists. Preliminary research findings suggest that Studio E: The Epilepsy Art Therapy Program, a multi-week art therapy program sponsored by the Epilepsy Foundation and the pharmaceutical company Lundbeck, may help boost self-esteem in those with epilepsy.

What Is Epilepsy?

The word seizure is derived from the Latin word sacire meaning "to take possession of," which is a pretty apt characterization of this constellation or spectrum of disease. After all, epilepsy has a nasty habit of taking over and leaving the victim temporarily disembodied and vulnerable. About three million Americans are diagnosed with epilepsy. 

People with epilepsy experience recurrent seizures (absolute definition: two or more unprovoked seizures). There are various types of epilepsy syndromes characterized by different types of seizures and etiologies or causes. Broadly, these seizures can be classified as focal or originate in one portion of a cerebral hemisphere, or generalized and rapidly engaging multiple neural networks distributed across both cerebral hemispheres.

The ideal epilepsy drug would provide prophylaxis against all seizure activity without adverse effects. In reality, however, in many, epilepsy drugs inhibit only some seizures with nasty adverse effects to boot. Drugs used to treat epilepsy vary depending on the type of seizures people experience.

Inside Studio E: The Epilepsy Art Program

Studio E is a free six- to an eight-week program available to all people with epilepsy symptoms from those with mild to severe disease. Sessions last three hours once a week and are available to both children and adults. Currently, Studio E is offered in 49 cities with plans to expand offerings in 2015.

Studio E participants use art to interact with others and express themselves. Available media include pastels, papers, paints, and modeling clay. Studio E uses an open model of expression, and at the end of each session, participants share and discuss their work. Art therapists with master's degrees teach participants to create art and encourage open sharing. One Studio E art therapist is typically assigned to 10 to 12 participants.

Art therapy is an emerging field of study, which was pioneered in the 1940s and 1950s. Besides epilepsy, art therapy has been used to help people with various other diseases and conditions. The benefits of art therapy are numerous and include:

  • Development of interpersonal skills
  • Resolution of conflicts
  • Behavior management
  • Improved autonomy
  • Stress reduction
  • Coping
  • Bonding with others
  • Art education

“Art therapy is the process of making of art within a therapeutic relationship," says Lacy Vitko, lead art therapy coordinator at the Epilepsy Foundation and Studio E art therapist. "It can work in a multitude of ways. Like any field, there are different frameworks that art therapy is utilized in. … Studio E program is more of an art-as-therapy model.”

Studio E began in 2010 and has evolved over time. "We really wanted participants to be able to connect with one another ... to build their self-esteem... to gain some empowerment through art making," states Vitko. "We have found that the [interpersonal] connections have become the overarching aspect of the program that really helps people move forward."

In her years with Studio E, Vitko has seen great benefit. “I’ve seen firsthand transformations happen. I’ve seen people come in isolated, quiet, and in their shell … but as they start using art materials and start having conversations with other people about what’s happening in their paintings, and they start to open up, at the end of the eight weeks they’re not the same people they were. They’re changed. I see it time and time again, and I’ve heard it from all the other art therapists across the country... "

Jill Gattone, an advocacy manager at Lundbeck who collaborates with the Epilepsy Foundation to manage the Studio E program, has also been touched by the success of the program. She's seen young kids come in never having met another person with epilepsy and finding other friends on the same medications or facing the same challenges. She's also seen adults bond at sessions and become lifelong friends who meet for coffee and other social activities.

“The research is great, but those kinds of stories compel us to improve and expand the program,” says Gattone.

Research on Studio E

Results from a pilot study examining Studio E are encouraging. Among 67 people enrolled in the program, Studio E seemed to boost self-esteem as measured by the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES). More specifically, self-esteem can be defined as feelings of self-respect and the perceived ability to do things as well as others. Moreover, participants really liked Studio E, and attrition or drop-out rate was low.

Quality of life measures, including driving and employment, were also assessed using a separate questionnaire; however, no improvement was suggested in such activities of daily living (which probably makes sense because art has little to do with driving or employment).

"Epilepsy is a spectrum disorder," says Gattone. "You have participants or people with epilepsy on both ends of the spectrum. Some can be very impacted by their epilepsy, where [with] others it affects their life in a small way. As it relates to Studio E, we see quite a variety along that spectrum. Sometimes people with epilepsy ... can feel very isolated. … Sometimes it’s hard for them to get out and work and do things in the community. So that can affect self-esteem. There is still, unfortunately, a stigma in the community … and that can hurt self-esteem.”

Looking forward, Studio E researchers hope to further examine art as therapy for people with epilepsy, and a randomized-control trial is in the works. They hope that further research on Studio E will help art therapy for epilepsy become a more evidence-based practice. Nonetheless, from an experiential perspective, Studio E has helped many people with epilepsy feel better, make friends, cope, and learn more about art. 

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Article Sources

  • Lowenstein DH. Chapter 369. Seizures and Epilepsy. In: Longo DL, Fauci AS, Kasper DL, Hauser SL, Jameson J, Loscalzo J. eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 18e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2012. 
  • Poster presentation titled "The Impact of an Art Therapy Program on Self-Esteem and Quality of Life in People with Epilepsy" by JM Buelow, LR Vitko and JM Gattone presented at the 2014 annual meeting for the American Epilepsy Society and sponsored by The Epilepsy Foundation and Lundbeck, LLC.