Speaking through art: PhD grad finds new ways for concussion patients to express themselves

Speech-language pathologist Jessica Harasym’s groundbreaking doctoral research merges arts-based research with rehabilitation science to reveal how young people navigate communication changes after concussion.


Inspired by her experiences as a speech-language pathologist, Jessica Harasym (right) merged arts-based research and rehabilitation science in her doctoral research to learn how youth navigate communication changes after concussion. (Photo: John Ulan)

For Jessica Harasym, a person’s ability to communicate is part art, part science, and the whole focus of groundbreaking work she has been doing over the better part of the past two decades to help people get the most out of talking.

Today, the speech-language pathologist marks a new milestone as a PhD graduate from the University of Alberta whose innovative approach blends arts-based research with the science of concussion recovery.

“I have always been fascinated by how we connect and share ideas with one another,” she says. “I joined the profession because I wanted to help others engage in meaningful communication activities in their daily lives.”

In 2005, after earning her master’s degree, Harasym became a speech-language pathologist at an Edmonton early education program. A few years later, she joined the U of A’s Institute for Stuttering Treatment and Research (ISTAR), where she spent time during her undergrad as a research assistant.

At ISTAR, Harasym has worked with clients who come from all over the world to attend its intensive stuttering clinics. Success required her to collaborate with both clients and families while tailoring treatment plans to each client’s unique strengths and needs.

The work also brought her face-to-face with the link between concussions and language skills.

An estimated 200,000 concussions occur annually in Canada, most happening to children under the age of 18. About one-quarter of these youth “experience prolonged symptoms that can include disruptions in their abilities to communicate, affecting speech, listening, reading, writing and social interaction,” Harasym says.

“Many of my clients shared with me how they struggled to be understood and navigated concerns of judgment and outright negative listener reactions in their daily activities.”

Harasym discovered there was very little research into communication changes young people experience after suffering a concussion. That’s why, 13 years after earning her master’s degree, Harasym headed back to the classroom to pursue her PhD in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine.

Arts-based research

The idea of using arts-based research to learn more about the scope of the problem was inspired by Harasym’s interactions with ISTAR clients. She found that clients recovering from concussions used artistic forms of expression to make sense of and express the impacts of their experiences.

“In the clinic, clients would often bring drawings or bullet journals that expressed their feelings when words fell short. When I was completing my doctoral research, the creative contributions of the participants enriched the study’s findings in ways I could not have predicted at the beginning,” says Harasym, who is at the forefront of this innovative work.

I have always been fascinated by how we connect and share ideas with one another.... I hope that by sharing my work we can begin to identify, challenge and reframe misunderstandings about concussion and communication.

Jessica Harasym

Jessica Harasym, ‘23 PhD (Rehabilitation Science)
(Photo: John Ulan)

Harasym gathered detailed first-hand accounts of young people’s experiences, shedding light on how these sudden changes can increase the risk of isolation and adverse mental health outcomes. Her results have revealed the significance of art as a tool for self-expression and provided crucial insights into the physical and mental ramifications of concussions and associated communication changes on the well-being of youth.

One participant submitted a drawing crafted during the peak of her concussion symptoms: an image of a girl with her mouth shrouded in darkness. The darkness was explained as an illustration of her struggle with communication and the sense that she had “become an observer of her life.”

Another individual shared pages from a notebook containing the message, “Make the library ’ur friend.” This evolved into a mantra that propelled him into proactive self-study — like watching lectures on YouTube and frequenting the library — to actively try to improve his communication skills.

“The creative works were used to guide our interviews — allowing the participants to share the stories they wanted to tell in the way they wanted to tell them,” says Harasym.

Reimagining the role of rehabilitation

Shanon Phelan, associate professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy and Harasym’s research supervisor, says her work “explored the intersections of communication, concussion recovery and well-being while centring youths’ voices.

“The thesis pushes the boundaries of her field through innovative arts-based research methods as a form of communication, disrupting communication norms and calling for a reimagining of the role of rehabilitation in concussion management,” Phelan says.

Harasym’s work also shows the power of bringing together different disciplines — speech-language pathology, occupational therapy and physiotherapy, according to her supervisor Doug Gross, professor and chair of the Department of Physical Therapy.

“Our collective experiences and the diverse methodologies of these fields informed the research, which ultimately expanded into something completely new and innovative,” Gross says.

With her PhD in hand and her wealth of clinical experience to draw on, Harasym now aspires to contribute to public education and advocacy. 

“I hope that by sharing my work we can begin to identify, challenge and reframe misunderstandings about concussion and communication.”

Harasym’s research was supported by a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship and a graduate studentship award funded by the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.