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Escaping boredom through creativity at UCLH

How cell-biologist turned artist, Dr Lizzie Burns, is inspiring patients to boycott boredom and find beauty during difficult times.

Boredom in hospitals can be damaging for patients as time spent mind-wandering can cause decline in mental health and wellbeing. This is often expressed in the form of anxiety or depression – and this dark cloud cast over a patient may cause physical deterioration such as increased recovery time and fatigue.

Lizzie Burns, a cell-biologist turned artist, says that boredom affects many but whilst children are offered toys, play therapists and school in hospitals, adults are usually left to mull over all possibilities and outcomes of treatment.

In a BMJ article, Elizabeth Burns: Pass me an anti-boredom pill doctor, Lizzie says that “Normally boredom encourages us to make changes and escape rumination, but options for adults in hospital are limited.” This motivated Lizzie in her work as a Creative Specialist within the Macmillan Support and Information Service at the University College London Macmillan Cancer Centre. Her post is funded by the UCH Cancer Fund and was made possible by sponsorship from the Cancer Fund’s corporate partner, Amplifi.

Lizzie has inspired the volunteer team at UCLH to offer activities to combat boredom at UCLH. She says, “Encouraging adults to take part in meaningful activities provides them with opportunities to take back a sense of control. Simple ideas such as doodling and Origami help spark conversation, interest, and focus. The most frequent comment about the experience is feeling happy.”

Lizzie engages through sculptures, doodling, guess the object, Origami, extreme dot-to-dot and colouring in. The activities are often themed - sometimes with a science focus, other times with a meditative and recovery focus.

An example of Oregami that Lizzie  is creating with patients
An example of Oregami that Lizzie is creating with patients

Science-focused activities involve colouring in patterns based on life images, such as photographs of microscopic blood cells. “I believe there is a psychology in symmetry and patterns that is uplifting and I think we really need beauty. The images are very detailed, together with explanations of what they are, which provides patients with learning opportunities.”

Meditative activities involve Origami (paper folding) and recently, creating paper snowflakes for Christmas decoration. Origami can be especially difficult and requires a sense of nurturing and focus which helps patients to experience self-discipline and set and achieve goals. The paper flowers can be kept in wards and waiting rooms and Lizzie says that they “continue to bloom, bringing colour, beauty and an expression of care.”

The boredom-busting activities are extremely popular with patients and many comment on the distractive and therapeutic values. Christina, a patient at UCLH, says that activities “were something to get absorbed in, to take you out of you”. She later commented that in hospitals, a primary focus can be on physical symptoms which we can get absorbed in. “Distraction and escapism can be a good as pain relief.” Another patient in radiotherapy commented that “Origami takes your mind on a journey.”

Lizzie says that creativity inspires self-expression which is a powerful tool that can change the mood of a patient. “Due to this, creativity could turn waiting into a positive experience – that’s what my work aims to do.” In the words of one patient, it is “a really welcome and joyful distraction from a rather serious business.”