Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Lee Ann Thill Talks About The VIAL Project

Lee Ann Thill is many things. A PWD, an artist and certified Art Therapist & licensed counselor who is currently 18 months in to studying for her Doctorate. Many of you know Lee Ann as the Blogger behind TheButterCompartment and the creative force of Diabetes Art Day and The World Diabetes Day Postcard Exchange
Now you can add  mastermind of the new Social Media website site: VIAL Project to the list!
What is the VIAL Project?  The VIAL Project is a place "for people with type 1 diabetes and mild to severe food and body issues, including disordered eating and diagnosed eating disorders, to share original, creative self-expression and connect with each other." 
I think the VIAL Project is a wonderful and very much needed resource for people with type 1 Diabetes who struggle with food and body issues, and I strongly encourage anyone and everyone who is dealing with those issues to checkout the VIAL Project for themselves!  
Now, here's a Q & A with Lee Ann where she has the opportunity to explain VIAL Project in her own voice - And I think you'll really appreciate what she has to say!

How did you come up with idea for VIAL Project?
My primary motivation for creating VIAL Project is for academic research.  I’m an art therapist, licensed counselor, and doctoral student in the Expressive Therapies program at Lesley University in Boston.  Both my clinical and research interests are the emotional issues that affect people with diabetes.  There’s been some great research, but so much more needs to be learned, and that knowledge needs to be applied into programs and initiatives that help patients, so the reason I decided to go back to school was because I want to do research that will hopefully help the diabetes community.
 In considering my options for what specifically to research, I narrowed it down to type 1 and food and body issues, but my concern was how to access people with this issue because they often avoid healthcare, and can be reluctant to identify themselves and engage in treatment.  As a diabetes advocate, I have experienced and witnessed the power of social media, and harnessed that power to facilitate and promote Diabetes Art Day and the World Diabetes Postcard Exchange.  Finding a way to reach people through social media seemed a natural fit for my experience and interests, and also offered an innovative way to reach people in need.
 As an art therapist, incorporating creative expression into this project was a given.  The arts have been largely ignored in diabetes care, but increasingly, they are being integrated into pediatric and cancer care settings.  There is almost no research on how art can help people with diabetes, and that has to change if we want to live the best lives we can with diabetes.  I have just discovered Ellen Dissanayake, a scholar who writes about the evolutionary purpose of art-making, and in her book, Homo Aestheticus (1992), she writes that making art offers “the ability to shape and thereby exert some measure of control over the untidy material of everyday life."  
If people with diabetes don’t have untidy material they need to exert some control over, I don’t know who does.  I think modern society has largely ignored the value of creative expression, and at least for people with diabetes, my goal is to show people that not only is it important, but for the sake of our health, it’s necessary.  
What does V-I-A-L stand for?
 VIAL = Voice – Insulin – Art – Life
Voice: It's a social media site, and connecting with others through posting and commenting will be important to the user experience.  Also, people with food and body issues can have difficulty expressing their feelings, so the one of the goals of the site is to encourage them to use their voice and be heard by posting, commenting and sharing their creative work.
Insulin: Despite our best efforts, BG's deviate, so insulin can be a source of frustration and risk, even though it is simultaneously lifesaving.  Additionally, there are people with type 1 who omit or under-dose their insulin to affect weight, and some people have extreme anxiety about taking insulin because they fear gaining weight.
Art: The website promotes making and sharing creative work online.  People can use any of the expressive art forms they enjoy, but are encouraged to experiment with unfamiliar art forms too.  This is a judgment-free zone, reflecting my core belief that all creative expression is beautiful because it reflects the artist's feeling and experience. People with diabetes tend to be overly self-critical, as do people with food and body issues. This is an opportunity to let go of that inner critic, and practice self-acceptance.
 Life: Food and body issues have a way of keeping people from reaching their fullest potential. I hope users of the site will find some benefit from interacting with others and using creative expression, and in turn, they will take steps towards becoming the people they want to be, living the lives they most want to live.
How has art and social media helped you with your food & body issues? 
I’ve had type 1 since 1978, and from my teens to early 30's, I had a serious eating disorder.  During all of those years, I was in out-patient therapy, and when my symptoms became worse, different treatment programs.  I was actually introduced to art therapy as a patient, and got a lot out of the experience.  I’ve always done creative things, whether it’s fine art, crafts, writing, gardening, customizing my websites – it’s been a mixed bag of creative outlets, but they’ve kept me going, kept me motivated, and when my eating disorder was really bad, creative work was one of the few things that gave my life positive meaning.
 Regarding social media, I’ve been using the internet since 1992, and from the start, I sought resources and means of connecting with other people with type 1, both with and without eating problems.  As the online options improved, I became active on some online communities, and the relationships I developed were one of the factors that motivated me to finally commit to recovery.  Once I was recovered, I began sharing my story and advocating for increased awareness, and found social media an effective way to share  and engage with others.

Explain how the VIAL Project can help others struggling with type 1 diabetes and eating disorders.

 People with type 1 can experience a wide range of mild to severe food and body problems.  These problems are not being adequately addressed, and people are not receiving the support they need, which seriously compromise emotional and physical health for people with type 1. VIAL Project combines creative expression and social media for people with type 1 and food and body issues.  Generally speaking, I hope they benefit by doing creative projects, sharing their creativity, and connecting with others.  I hope they gain new insight, increased confidence, self-acceptance, willingness to share and take risks to try new things, greater sense of connection and belonging, improved creative problem solving skills, vision for what they want for themselves, and the steps they can take to accomplish that.  
My theory is that taking these steps forward by participating on VIAL has potential to bring people that much closer to overcoming food and body issues that cause them distress and adversely affect their health.
From a research perspective, this project is as much about what users can teach me about what they need, and what will help them, than what I can offer them.  That is one of the unique aspects of doing research, both as an investigator and as a participant.  It’s a symbiotic relationship – I want to help you, but I need you to help me understand what you need.  
My theory is that this site will offer some benefit, but in the end, I am depending on participants to educate me about their experience with type 1 and food and body issues, and whether or not there is anything valuable about participating on VIAL.  What are the characteristics of the people who thought it was helpful?  What do they find helpful?  How is it helpful?  What do they think needs to be changed?  I am trying to approach this project with questions instead of assumptions about what will emerge. 

What's the time line your working with?

 Building an active social network typically takes time, but I have a late spring data collection deadline for this pilot project, so it is imperative to fast track things, recruit users, and promote participation. If the pilot project yields promising results, I will continue to use the website for my dissertation research starting in the fall, and if the dissertation yields positive results, I want to continue to refine the site so it can be a resource for people who need it.  My broader vision is for the site to become a go-to website for people with diabetes and food and body issues, but as long as users are willing to participate in research, I want to increase the knowledge and understanding about diabetes and food and body issues.  
There's so much to learn, and the more we can learn, the better equipped we will be to reach, engage and offer treatment and maybe even prevention initiatives so fewer people will struggle with these problems, and those who do will find more support and more effective treatment.  
Thank you for spreading the word, Kelly, so we can make steps towards those bigger goals.

Is there anything else you'd like people to know about The VIAL Project?

It’s important to know that VIAL is a judgment-free zone.  All levels of creative experience are welcome.  It is not an art contest or showcase, but a welcome environment for people to use creative expression to show what their experience with type 1 and food and body issues is like, and that isn’t necessarily going to be pretty.  
All creative expression is beautiful though because it comes from inside the maker, a reflection of their internal experience.  I think this is an especially fitting way to think about the creative process for people whose ideas about appearance cause them distress about their bodies and eating.  
Engaging in the creative process by focusing on the process, and less on the aesthetic value of the final product is a lovely metaphor for how people with type 1 diabetes could benefit from focusing less on the final product – the number on the scale, the number on the meter, the numbers on the lab results, the shape in the mirror – and more on the process of living and just doing one’s best.  If you put your heart into it, and find joy in the process, what unfolds will be satisfying and meaningful.

You can find the VIAL Project on the web at: http://vialproject.ning.com/ 
And on twitter: @VIALProject

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