Featured Sunnyview Veterans

How therapeutic clowns are making a difference for Canadian veterans

When you hear the word “clown”, a distinct image likely comes to mind, and one that doesn’t usually include a hospital. But a unique certificate course, the first of its kind in North America, is now being trialed at Sunnybrook’s Veterans Centre. I recently sat down with Helen Donnelly, a professional therapeutic clown who is spearheading this unique George Brown College Program, to learn more.


What are the top three misconceptions about your profession?

That we are volunteers, that we are undertrained and that we are fluff.

In reality, this is an evidence-based profession, and happily there are now hundreds of articles and research efforts that have been tracking the efficacy of the work we do.

What has the research found?

We all know the scientific benefits of laughter and smiles – but there are other areas we have measured: how we may reduce isolation, less pain and stress — and that’s part of what we bring to the table. Also interesting, for example, is tracking the reaction of patients who are non-verbal. How do you know we are reaching them? We were the first to prove through research that we have a positive effect on their lives. Right now, I’m also involved in research examining what foolishness means to children, which has never been measured. It’s an effort to understand the value of what we bring, which is so unique.

So what is it you actually do?

The profession of therapeutic clowning is an arts-based practice, usually in health care settings, serving children, adults and elders. We use connectivity, lightness and joy through the art of clown in order to make a connection with those in care.

When we are at Sunnybrook, we’ll spend about four hours preparing for each three-hour visit on the units. We review each resident’s medical charts, getting to know more about their condition, likes and dislikes. We want to know how their weekend went, if they are getting visits, if there is a behaviour we should be mindful of. These are all things we need to keep in mind when we meet with them. And when we do, we are here to restore dignity, reduce stress and to celebrate every person, regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities. Because we are physical theatre artists, we’re able to go into those worlds of the imagination and connect to the quality of care piece.

Having you here is a first for Sunnybrook…

Yes, this is the first time therapeutic clowning has entered these doors! There has been an incredible amount of respect afforded to us, even though we are brand new. Staff are reading our notes on the electronic medical records, they are thanking us for those details and offering tips on the likes and dislikes of certain residents. That interdisciplinary aspect is so important to us, and it very much a best practice.

Tell me about your school

My aim is to meet global best practice standards through the work we do and what we are teaching. The program will be offered every three years through George Brown College (Continuing Education), and we have been here at Sunnybrook’s Veterans Centre since September on occasional Fridays. Earlier in the school year, students shadowed myself and another professional Therapeutic Clown. They were then partnered with one of us while being supervised. We’ll finish off the school year by having them partner with a fellow student while being supervised, evaluated and debriefed afterwards.

All of our students are either professional theatre artists or circus artists. So they’ve had many years of training and experience. On average, they are ten years into their chosen profession before they enroll into this program. The focus, then, is to translate their existing skills into a healthcare context: this takes time.

How many therapeutic clowns are there in Canada?

Not many, when you compare it to some places in Europe. For example, there are hundreds in Germany alone! Here in Canada, there are about 50 (most are in Quebec). But the profession continues to grow.

What reaction are you seeing at Sunnybrook?

We’ve had so many really positive reactions from the veteran residents at Sunnybrook. For instance, there was a gentleman who was being fed and had his eyes closed. When we started singing his name and describing his food, his eyes opened and he became much more engaged.

His aide was really praising our presence, pointing out his renewed interest in his meal and the world around him. We continue to hear from staff that we’re having a major impact. That part is key, so we can know where we are needed. We share our findings on the electronic health records, and the care team is reading and considering our notes, which is amazing.

So far, so good?

I’m just so thrilled to get to this point. It’s been a long-standing wish of mine to come to Sunnybrook and offer our art to the residents here. To get here is a beautiful dream come true.

About the author

Monica Matys

Monica Matys is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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