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Stellenbosch University’s medical students beat burnout with the stroke of a brush
Author: Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking [Anél Lewis]
Published: 04/03/2024

​​​​The ability of art to improve mental health has been well documented, but research shows that a few hours of creativity may also help health professionals become more confident and competent in a clinical setting.

The Centre for Student Counselling and Development (CSCD) at Stellenbosch University's Tygerberg campus is therefore offering students from the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences an opportunity to join weekly art therapy sessions where they can express and deal with their emotions in a “safe and experiential space".

“Health science students often have elevated levels of stress and emotional exhaustion and a low sense of personal accomplishment. As a result, they are at risk of developing problems with anxiety, depression, and burnout," explains An-Maree Nel, the CSCD's senior clinical psychologist. “The art therapy is a form of self-care that involves engaging with something new and creative, encouraging students to access their playful side. This will contribute to pro-actively preventing burnout."

While the new curriculum for medical students does allow for personal development, she explains, the CSCD's art therapy sessions are a separate initiative to help students deal with the challenges they experience during their studies. “An art therapy programme can create a valuable space for connection and the normalisation of experiences, leaving students with a sense that they are not alone. This process allows students to draw inspiration from others' stories and enrich their interpretations of themselves."

Although this not the first time the course has been presented – it was last offered in 2018 before the pandemic – the interest from students has been encouraging says Nel, pointing to the growing need for this kind of creative outlet and space to reflect. The first group of the year was full within two days of it being advertised, and there is a waiting list for the next one.

Unlike the logical, clinical paradigm in which these students are accustomed to working, art therapy creates a space where students “develop new perspectives and descriptions of themselves". Art materials are therefore used in an “exploratory and spontaneous manner" and the focus is on the process rather than a specific artistic product. “I use a narrative therapy approach while also incorporating tools and techniques from various therapeutic modalities," explains Nel.

Developmentally, students are at an age where they are still discovering who they are, adds Nel. Despite this they face challenging scenarios within the clinical environment that most adults would struggle to navigate. Feelings of being unable to cope may be exacerbated when a student lives far from home and their support system. “The art therapy programme encourages new perspectives and insights to emerge through process of reflection and exploration, which in turn contributes to participants making positive changes in their lives, helping them to regulate their emotions and challenges with greater ease."

While a creative outlet has many personal benefits for the student, it can also have a positive impact on patient care in the future, notes Nel. As a form of self-care, art therapy actively helps to prevent burnout and encourages students to develop healthier habits. “When students nurture their own needs in this way, they are also better equipped to care for patients."

This is backed up by international research which points to the professional benefits of encouraging medical students and practitioners to pick up a brush. Anna Reisman, associate professor of medicine and director of the Program for Humanities in Medicine at Yale University in the United States, has said: “Art can be a way to grapple with understanding the perspective and experience of others. It's also the experience of creating art, regardless of ability, as a means of capturing one's experience by paying attention to small details." It was found that by learning to observe as an artist, medical students are better able to see patients as individuals. This allows for unbiased, attentive medical care.

Nel agrees, saying: “When health professionals are  self-aware, compassionate and able to regulate their emotions, they make better clinical decisions. Art therapy helps students to develop these skills."

The sessions are open to all students in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.

  • Sessions take place on Tuesdays from 16:30–18:00 at the Centre for Student Counselling (Tygerberg) and entails a commitment of attending six sessions.
  • For more information and to book your spot, contact Nel at​

Image by on Freepik​​