By Sarah Randell

CHILDREN and young people who live with a long-term, chronic or physical condition often say they feel “invisible” because their disability has no obvious outward sign. They suffer in silence, typically reluctant to talk about their illness for fear of not being understood or even believed. Too often, others respond: “Well, you look OK.” When a child is already feeling the mental health impact of a painful condition, comments like this can add to their sense of isolation. Sadly, statistics show that a significant number of children and young people at risk of self-harm and suicide ideation have a chronic and/or physical health condition.

Ten years ago, when Teapot Trust was established, it was pioneering to introduce art into paediatric out-patient clinics in Scotland’s hospitals to keep children distracted and calm in between invasive tests, injections and scans. Needle phobia is common and many children find hospitals scary places, so art, being absorbing, gives them an "escape".

In recent years, the impact of arts in health has been growing in recognition. Creative therapies have provided a breakthrough, often effective where talking therapies have failed.

Through the gentle process of art therapy, those who struggle to come to terms with a diagnosis or accept a course of treatment (perhaps because of its unpleasant side effects) are helped to explore and express their feelings, discover healthy coping tools and build resilience. It can be powerful and transformative.

There’s usually a great sense of relief felt by children and parents alike when art therapy gets under way and starts to achieve its goals. Young people have described their lives moving from black and white into colour, given help to understand feelings that had been bottled up for a long time. Parents speak of the helplessness they felt at seeing their child disappear in a downward spiral of anxiety and depression, made worse by long waiting times for services that proved ineffective, before finally being referred to art therapy.

With art therapy established in many children’s hospitals in Scotland by Teapot Trust (although not yet funded by the NHS in most cases), it’s good to see collaborative work starting to happen between professionally qualified and registered art, music and drama therapists – where medical pathways make it appropriate. This feels like a natural progression in meeting children’s needs. It’s hoped it will also bring improved understanding of the impact of arts in health and greater parity between the treatment of physical and mental health.

This month, to improve public understanding, Teapot Trust is highlighting the experience of young patients who live with an “invisible” illness. Individuals around Scotland are bravely speaking out to encourage others to access funded art therapy through the charity.

Sarah Randell is Chief Executive of Teapot Trust, a registered Scottish charity at the forefront of mental health support for young patients living with chronic and physical conditions. The charity uses art therapy and creative interventions to meet needs, working in hospitals, communities and online. Self-referrals from families are welcomed.