MPS Art Therapy Faculty Highlight: Interview with Susanne Bifano, ATR-BC, LCAT

MPS Art Therapy: Tell us about your background and what brings you to SVA.

Susanne: I’m a mixed media artist and a graduate from Pratt Institute’s art therapy program. In 2005 I started teaching for College of New Rochelle’s Art therapy department and this July I taught my final course there before the college closed. SVA’s Art Therapy program has always been of interest to me for how they bring new and innovative concepts into art therapy education. Therefore when I met with Debi this summer, I was delighted to have the opportunity to teach the first half of clinical topics in trauma workshop for the Fall semester. 

MPS AT: How has teaching influenced your practice as an art therapist?

Susanne: This is a great question. Art Therapy students absorb so much content, and they challenge the application of therapy skills which influences my practice directly. As a result, I take what I do and say in sessions and break them into smaller steps to look deeply at the interaction. This has compelled me to stay focused on intention as an art therapist. 

MPS AT: How does medical art therapy differ from art therapy practiced in other settings?

Susanne: I am frequently asked this question and I usually say, “The environment is the difference, the work is the same.” I realize other art therapists in medical settings might disagree with me, though in my experience, behavior is behavior and symptoms are symptoms.

 The patients admitted into a medical/surgical setting are the same individuals in foster care, attending the NYC public schools, participating in afterschool programs, have been incarcerated, are in residential treatment centers and living in shelters. They are the same individuals seeking therapy in a private practice or a community organization. 

In thinking about the Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACEs), we know factors such as residing in violent neighborhoods, poverty, abuse, racism, bullying, and other adverse experiences impact the physiological systems in the body which can lead to heart disease, diabetes, respiratory disease as well as substance use and other mental health disorders. When working in the hospital, a patient might be presenting with a medical condition such as pulmonary hypertension or diabetes though there are other contributing factors that underlie the illness that the body is currently expressing.  

I think one of the areas where medical art therapy differs is the trauma is so visceral and present in the session. The trauma is sometimes visible such as how we can see hair loss from the effects of chemotherapy, limb loss, peeling skin on the face and other body parts, deformities, open wounds, bandages and a plethora of tubes and machines connected to the body. Smells from the various medications, wounds and bodily fluids are distinct and can permeate throughout the room. The sounds of alarms coming from IV pumps, ventilators, and machines assisting an individual’s heart to pump are prominent and consistently occupy the space. Touch, such as a handshake and other forms of personal connection can be sometimes shielded by a layer of protective gear such as a glove, mask or gown. 

In medical art therapy, these extensions of the person such as the tubing, oxygen masks and syringes, can be worked into the art making sessions. Sculpting with urinals, tongue depressors and EKG stickers provides another opportunity to transform the experience and for the client to find new meaning in their medical journey. 

I work with acutely ill pediatric patients and therefore a majority of the art therapy sessions are held at the bedside, which is also their temporary bedroom, kitchen, and living room. Some might need assistance physically working with materials, interventions for pain management, or help processing their new diagnosis. 

In a recent study from 2018, Bushroe et al, affirmed that individuals admitted to the hospital for unintentional injury, were more likely to need mental health services and psychotropic medications around 3-6 months after they were discharged. This supports the need for interventions during the hospitalization to hopefully prevent the need for out-patient psychiatric services and/or psychotropic medications afterwards. Creative arts therapy is essential for working with trauma and therefore in the medical/surgical setting (and one could argue in ALL settings) it is a necessary service and can benefit the individual after they have left the hospital. 

Healthcare continues to face cuts and restrictions on their purse strings. Patient satisfaction (those surveys you receive after a visit to your doctor really do count) and pain management are two hot topics for hospitals. Art therapy has been shown to reduce pain as well as many patients report feeling relief from other symptoms associated to their medications and illness while enjoying the process of engaging in art making. This can increase satisfaction scores and help hospitals in their overall ratings.  

Therefore, I think it is an exciting time for medical art therapy. Research on the efficacy of art therapy, education about the practice, and advocacy for creative arts therapists are essential to moving forward. As art therapists, we need to be properly identified in hospitals with ID badges and job descriptions that say ‘Art Therapy’. We need to have our own distinct department where we are identified as a psychological service. There is so much possibility in this field and we can accomplish so much with new ideas and a renewed vision. 

MPS AT: What advice do you have for the students as they finish their schooling and begin to venture out into the professional world?

Susanne: I am usually not big on giving advice, though I do love this question!

Educate everyone, everywhere, at all times about art therapy. 

Practice how to explain and describe art therapy. This is so essential. Practice your “elevator speech”. This is when you get on the elevator on the 2nd floor and the CEO enters on the 3rd floor and she asks you, “What is art therapy?” You have 8 floors to explain what you do and why they need you (and probably more creative arts therapists!).  Time yourself, practice with your peers, make it fun, and anytime you are asked about what you are in school for, try out a different version until you have a few that feel right. 

Art must be an essential component in your life. Whether it is making art, looking at art, talking about art, dancing, singing, playing an instrument, acting…immerse yourself in art. It is vital for sustaining fresh eyes and ears. Art therapists can learn so much from keeping their fingers on the pulse of art in our world.  

Prepare for your job interviews now, by capturing vignettes, recreate client art, and create a portfolio that includes goals and your interventions. In my experience, not many employers ask for portfolios so this is a great way to leave an impression with your interviewer and show them what is possible.

Apply for jobs that do and do not have art therapy in the title. There is so much possibility out there, and it doesn’t always say ‘Art Therapy’.  Our training is so unique and we have such an amazing opportunity to help others see and experience the world in a different way. 

Provide all of the information your potential new employer will need regarding your limited permit. Familiarize yourself with the New York State Office of Professions website and be ready to explain what would be required. Have all possible answers ready and solutions to any potential ‘barriers’. 

Follow up all interviews with a thank you note that is personalized and describes your work with more depth, answer any unresolved questions lingering from the interview and speak to how the partnership would be mutually beneficial. The professional world of art therapy is so small. Practice good interviewing skills before, during and after the interview. 

Join a supervision group. I think this is so important for any graduate, even if you are able to receive supervision at your j

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