Montana State University

Art offers relief to rural Western women with chronic health conditions

May 26, 2009 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Katie Worth, a professional artist and MSU nursing student, wants to use art to benefit people with serious illnesses. This oil painting on linen, one of her pieces, shows natural forms changing over time. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN -- Rural women with chronic health conditions often find relief by knitting, quilting and sewing, says an award-winning student researcher at Montana State University.

After identifying information was removed, Katie Worth of Livingston studied thousands of Internet exchanges in a confidential chat room. With no outside prompting, many of the women wrote that artistic hobbies distracted them from their situations and improved their quality of life, Worth said.

Embedded in comments about pain and pain management were remarks about creating art. Some women brought up painting and sculpting. More talked about art involving textiles, especially knitting, quilting and sewing. Several said they made their art for others. It wasn't prescribed by doctors or therapists.

"They had a real strong sense of the creative process, whether it was something they picked up after their disease started or a long time ago," Worth said. "It was an important part of their coping strategy for dealing with chronic illness."

Worth, a professional artist and junior in the MSU College of Nursing, presented her findings at MSU's Student Research Celebration in mid-April. She will explain them again in November at the 40th Sigma Theta Tau International Biennial conference in Indianapolis. Worth and MSU graduate student Lisa Macille both received "Rising Star" awards this year from the international honor society for nurses.

The women whose exchanges she studied had chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and cancer, Worth said. They were 35 to 65 years old and lived at least 25 miles from towns with more than 12,500 people. Many lived on remote ranches. All lived in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, Washington, Oregon or Nebraska. They communicated with each other through a virtual support group affiliated with Women to Women, a computer-based project started 13 years ago by Clarann Weinert, SC, a nursing professor at MSU and Worth's adviser. The Women to Women project uses technology to help rural women adapt more successfully to their chronic illnesses.

Worth studied Internet correspondence made during 11 weeks in 2008. She said she discovered the art-making theme after searching the chat room exchanges for key words like art-making, pain and creativity.

"It was more than I was looking for," Worth said. "They weren't being asked if it was helpful. They were talking among themselves."

Weinert said she and others had noticed that women sometimes talked about their hobbies in the chat room, but no one before Worth analyzed their exchanges.

"It's exciting to have someone who wants to look at our work from a different lens," Weinert said.

Worth wants to use art to benefit people in hospices, dialysis centers and other places where they're stressed and undergoing treatment, so her research project provided her with valuable background information, Weinert added.

Worth earned an undergraduate degree from the Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia and a master's degree in fine arts from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. While working at the University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center, Worth said she started noticing the role of art in chronically ill women. The women there were more interested in painting and sculpting than quilting and sewing, but the result was the same as she found in the West, Worth said. Creating art improved their lives.

Her findings concurred with a 2006 study that said even one session of art-making affected eight of the nine side effects of chemotherapy on the Edmonton Symptom Assessment Scale, Worth said. While art-making did not affect nausea, it did improve well-being and reduced pain, tiredness, depression, anxiety, drowsiness, poor appetite and breathlessness.

Worth's research was funded by MSU's Undergraduate Scholars Program and the National Institute of Nursing Research.

For more information about the Women to Women project, see http://www.montana.edu/cweinert/wtw.html

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu