Graphic medicine shares illness experiences

It’s a quirky scene. Sarah Leavitt lies next to her mother, Midge, who is quiet and presumably asleep. Suddenly, Midge sits up, singing folk songs, talking in short bursts and exhaling noisily.

This is a day in the life of graphic artist and caregiver Leavitt. She has published a book of illustrations with captions telling the story of what it’s like to journey with a once-vibrant mother who is now living with Alzheimer’s disease.

Tangles: A Story of Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me is among a group of books on display near the front desk of the Brock University Library. The collection comprises a relatively new genre of graphic novels called ‘graphic medicine,’ which the Canadian Medical Association Journal defines as being “a form of visual storytelling that explores narratives of the body, health care, healing and disability.”

“Graphic medicine helps humanize medical care by incorporating the perspectives of patients and healthcare providers into medical education, resulting in a view of the patient being a whole person with feelings, a mind and a spirit,” says Elizabeth Yates, Brock’s Liaison and Scholarly Communication Librarian.

This holistic approach in medical humanities expands biomedical understandings of illness and enables researchers and practitioners to move beyond focusing merely on pathology, says Associate Professor of Geography and Tourism Studies Ebru Ustundag.

“Paying attention to autobiographies of peoples’ experiences through graphic medicine gives us a novel understanding of health and illness than evidence-based medicine alone,” says Ustundag. “It’s a complementary approach to traditional medical education that should be an integral part of medical school and not just an ‘add-on’.”

Yates and her Library colleagues Evelyn Smith and Brooke Jones worked together to set up the display of manuscripts that cover a range of topics, including anorexia, postpartum depression and sexually transmitted diseases.

Ustundag, who studies trauma, mental well-being, addiction and other aspects of social and health geographies, says graphic medicine is a key ‘visual methodology’ that she employs in her research and teaching. Visual methods include the use of images, photography, comics and other visual technologies to document and represent knowledge.

“I would like to see more of this kind of material used in teaching, learning and research here, particularly for those students who will become healthcare professionals,” says Yates, who is the liaison librarian for the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences.

Beyond using graphic medicine as research and teaching tools, Ustundag says the genre supports people in intensely painful, distressing situations and informs others of what it’s like to be in those situations.

“This gives us a language, a coping mechanism, a safe haven; it’s empowering,” says Ustundag.

The concept of graphic medicine was created in 2007 by U.K. physician and artist Dr. Ian Williams, who found that comics were an effective resource in the study and delivery of healthcare.

Graphic medicine has been gaining in popularity over the past several years. Initially housed in public libraries, most mainstream bookstores offer a wide variety of graphic medicine and other graphic novels. The collaborative nature of the field brings individuals, communities and professionals together.

“Libraries play a significant role in bringing these critical conversations to the general public,” says Ustundag.

In 2017, Ustundag co-wrote a paper with Courtney Donovan from the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at San Francisco State University analyzing a graphic novel, Becoming Unbecoming, that explores themes relating to sexual violence, geographies of trauma and social justice.

Ustundag has been one of the co-organizers of the annual international conference of Graphic Medicine for 2020. This year’s theme is Graphic Medicine in/during Troubled Times: Health, Social Justice, and Human Rights, which will take place in Toronto July 16 to 19, 2020.

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