Art Therapy Helping Veterans Heal Body and Mind
Veterans return from the theater of war with many new experiences and memories. Unfortunately, many of these are traumatic, haunting, and even morally conflicting. The immediate loss of comrades, the gray area of on-the-spot decisions made in battle, and the evil they can’t ignore in a world far from home – these memories cling to them as they return and attempt to transition back into civilian life.
It’s not surprising that many veterans have difficulty discussing these things with their families and friends who have never experienced war. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a commonly know term today, describing a mental health condition triggered by experiencing or seeing a terrifying event. While it is more widely discussed today, veterans have struggled with it for decades, previously calling it “shell shock,” “war neurosis,” or “combat exhaustion.” Oftentimes it was never discussed at all, and veterans suffered in silence, struggling to reintegrate into “normal life” without an opportunity to release these traumatic memories and experiences.
Thankfully, as our culture begins to better understand PTSD, new therapies are being employed to help treat mental injuries in the same way therapists help veterans recovering from physical injuries. In both cases, art therapy has been found to be very successful in helping veterans heal and rehabilitate from injuries sustained during war.
Art therapy has been a valuable part of mental health services offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) since 1945. The Winter VA Hospital in Topeka, KS, first offered art therapy as part of their psychiatric services to returning World War II veterans. Today, art therapists offer therapeutic services to military personnel and their families in VA hospitals such as Walter Reed in Washington, DC, as well as in clinics, mental health programs, and private practice.
A Way to Express What Can’t Be Said
Art therapists focus on helping veterans process and find resolution with painful, scary, or guilty memories associated with their time in war. With no judgment, they give veterans the tools and space to take these memories from their minds and exercise them onto paper or in sculpture. Often, being able to expel the memories helps a veteran begin to move on and find resolution to what happened. Other times, the artwork can show others – like family, friends, or doctors – what the veteran experienced, even if it is too difficult to put the experience into words. Removing the barrier of misunderstanding, or the fear of judgment, can help a veteran begin to reconnect with his or her social circle.
As a veteran progresses in his or her art therapy sessions, they may begin to experience for the first time in a long time a sense of success or pride in their work. Learning a new skill set and sharing it with others can be an excellent boost to one’s self esteem, and a veteran may find that he or she truly enjoys a certain type of art. Having a new hobby – especially a peaceful one like painting, drawing, or sculpting – can help quiet compulsive thinking or hyper-awareness that many PTSD-sufferers experience. Displaying art work in public shows like the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival can reactivate a sense of achievement, pride, and other positive emotions, while also giving a sense of purpose in potentially helping other struggling veterans. Sharing one’s art gives a veteran the opportunity to connect with others and feel less alone in the world.
Improving Motor Skills and Quality of Life
For veterans recovering from traumatic physical injuries, art therapy offers and enjoyable and creative way to work on improving cognitive and fine motor skills. For those in long-term care situations, or facing a life ahead where they cannot communicate as easily as before, art therapy can offer an easier way of expression, or a break in a monotonous day where one can escape into his or her work. For many, the act of creating is just as important as the final piece of art, and looking forward to quite time where he or she can freely express emotions, memories, or hopes and dreams becomes an important lifeline.
Art therapy is a valuable and accessible tool in the fight against anxiety and mood disorders associated with PTSD, as well as a helpful and enjoyable outlet for veterans recovering from physical injuries. In the future, more veterans will ideally have access to and experience the many benefits of art therapy, and wounded warriors will find new paths to healing they desperately need and deserve.
Written by Megan Hammons