Military Veterans Can Benefit From Art Therapy

what is art therapy

contributed by Liz Zaczek, senior staff writer

There are many tools that can be used as part of effective mental health treatment. While many think of the traditional therapy method of a patient reclined on a sofa talking and answering questions with a professional therapist, It may surprise you to learn that art can be an effective tool in mental health treatment. What could art possibly have to do with psychotherapy? As an expressive medium, art can be used to help clients communicate, overcome stress, and explore different aspects of their own personalities.

What is Art Therapy?

Simply put, art therapy is the use of artistic methods to treat psychological disorders and enhance mental health. Participants use creative techniques such as drawing, painting, collage, coloring or sculpting to help people express themselves artistically and examine the psychological and emotional undertones in their art. With the guidance of a credentialed art therapist, clients can “decode” the nonverbal messages, symbols and metaphors often found in these art forms, which can lead to a better understanding of their feelings and behavior to assist in resolving deeper issues.

As clients create, they have the opportunity to analyze their project or piece and reflect on their feelings and thoughts about it.. Through exploring their art, participants can look for themes and conflicts that may be affecting their thoughts, emotions  and behaviors.

Art therapy became an officially recognized tool and/or formal program in the 1940’s. Doctors noted that individuals living with mental illness often expressed themselves in drawings and other forms of art, which led many to explore the use of art as a healing strategy. Since then, art has become an important part of the therapeutic field and is often used as part of assessment and treatment techniques.

Art Therapy as Treatment

Art therapy can be an effective and appropriate tool in the treatment of individuals, from children to senior citizens, living with a wide range of mental disorders and psychological distress. It can be used, and is likely most effective, when in conjunction with other psychological therapies such as group therapy and cognitive behavior therapy. It can help improve self-esteem, manage addictions, relieve stress, improve symptoms of anxiety and depression  and cope with the devastation of a serious physical illness or disability.

Art therapists work with individuals, couples and groups in a variety of settings, including private counseling, hospitals, wellness centers, correctional institutions, senior centers and other community organizations. Perceived artistic talent is not necessary for art therapy to be considered successful, because the therapeutic process is not about the artistic value of the work, but rather about finding associations between the creative choices made and a participant’s inner life and thoughts. The artwork can be used as a springboard for reawakening memories and telling stories that may reveal messages and beliefs from the unconscious mind.

Helping Veterans

Approximately 2.6 million United States service members were deployed to serve in the military from 2001 to 2011, during the period of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). And research suggests that between 10%  and 18% of veterans from those missions returned home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Intense and debilitating fear, depression, negative moods  and nightmares can negatively affect and  interrupt their daily lives.

A 2012 to 2014 survey at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence  (NICoE, the outpatient clinic dedicated to treatment of Traumatic Brain Injuries at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland) found that among the various clinical techniques and tools used to treat service members with PTSD, art therapy ranks among the top five most helpful techniques used.

According to Creative Forces, a national military healing arts program, more than 500,000 men and women of the U.S. armed services live with a traumatic brain injury or PTSD. Created as a joint venture between the National Endowment of the Arts and the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, Creative Forces places art therapy at the core of its patient care in 11 clinical sites. Creative Forces reports that 85 percent of patients at the Walter Reed National Medical Center said that art therapy was helpful to their healing. The network estimates art therapy for PTSD could save more than $1,000 in healthcare costs per veteran, or $1.7 billion.

Art Therapy Process

During a typical art therapy session participants work through three segments. In the beginning, time is allotted to “check in,” establishing an emotional starting point for participants. The middle segment generally includes an “artistic prompt” where participants are actively involved in producing artwork. The end segment is intended to “wrap up” by sharing meaningful dialogue regarding the artwork.

While art therapy uses a variety of media and activities, it is important to keep in mind that the purpose, healing through art, is simply approached from different avenues. One of the most popular activities in art therapy is drawing. The premise is for participants to draw pictures expressing their inner thoughts and then share dialogue describing their artistic depictions. Another widespread activity found throughout art therapy is photography. Essentially, photo art therapy gives visual form to personal feelings by capturing meaningful precise moments in the activities of participants’ daily lives. In addition to these activities used in art therapy there are numerous others available, including: painting, poetry, dance, instrumentals, vocals, songwriting, acting, quilting, crocheting, and sculpting, just to name a few.

After Art Therapy

While some participants may never pick up a pencil, paint brush or camera after their prescribed art therapy is completed some find art as an outlet and expression for their thoughts and emotions in everyday life. Their art can be found in many different galleries, museums and even for sale through a variety of outlets.

Veteran Art Connection is a place where healing and entrepreneurship meet. It gives veteran artists a chance to use their therapeutic creativity to secure their financial future. Most of the proceeds from the sale of the veteran’s artwork goes to the artist.

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