Art therapy is the therapeutic use of art making, within a professional relationship, by people who experience illness, trauma, or challenges in living, and by people who seek personal development. Through creating art and reflecting on the art products and processes, people can increase awareness of self and others cope with symptoms, stress, and traumatic experiences; enhance cognitive abilities; and enjoy the life-affirming pleasures of making art.
A relatively young profession, art therapy has experienced tremendous growth over the past decade, not only advancing treatment options, but more recently, advancing into different populations and treatment settings. In particular, art therapists have been working with a very special and unique population: the military. Military culture and protocol is rigid, disciplined, mission-focused and does not often leave room for creative, expressive opportunities. In contrast, the creative arts therapies are fluid, flexible, and expressive.
In the past ten years, two important medical and social trends have pushed art therapy to the forefront of trauma-focused treatment today. First, the field of neuroscience/neurobiology has virtually exploded in the past decade. Neurobiology, (specifically neurobiology of trauma – the biological study of the effects of trauma on the nervous system), and advances in medical technology now allow physicians, therapists, and scientists to literally see and understand what art therapists have known all along: creating (that is, art-making) can change the physical structure of the brain; and that potentially changes the way one thinks and feels. Creative arts therapists know through creating, whether through art, music, poetry, or drama, that traumatic memory can be readily accessed in a way that is less-threatening than traditional verbal therapies.
Second, the extended military campaigns of OIF/OEF/OND have brought the realities of combat trauma square on the shoulders of our service members. This reality has reverberated to the medical community, and our military mental health services. Service members and medical and mental health treatment providers have demanded better practices in treating the physically and psychologically wounded, ill or injured veteran. Art therapy has become a viable option at military treatment facilities and has proven to reduce symptoms of combat stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, anxiety, and depression.
The Family Reintegration Program, managed by Hope For The Warriors® and Holliswood Hospital, incorporates clinical art therapy into their work with service members and their families. In particular, a couple’s art therapy group with the goal of managing PTSD by improving couple communication skills. First, each participant works on their own as they draw what post-traumatic stress disorder looks and feels like to them. After completing their drawing, the art therapist guides each person to privately explain their art work to their spouse. Then as a couple, they explain their spouse’s drawing to the entire couples’ group. As the couples share their art work with each other and the entire group, identifiable themes often surface such as “feeling like a time-bomb just waiting to go off,” and “feeling backed into a dark corner, not knowing what to do.” The two drawings below are from a couples’ art therapy group.
In art therapy, creating art helps service members and their families talk about difficult topics such as anger, aggression, anxiety and depression. And for many service members, nonverbal expression of memories, feelings and thoughts to others is a relief. The artwork provides a safe way to depict and confront recurrent nightmares, flashbacks and traumatic memory. Nonverbal expression in a safe treatment setting is a critical step in processing combat trauma. Neuroscience can now prove what art therapists have always known–art therapy works. Art therapy was introduced into military treatment facilities because it is effective treatment for our service men and women who have experienced the trauma of war. Service members are learning that to overcome their combat trauma, they will need new communication skills. Through art, many are taking that first step.
Blog submitted by Tricia Winklosky, Clinical Health & Wellness Director with Hope For The Warriors®. Tricia has a Master of Science in Art Psychotherapy from Eastern Virginia Medical School and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Art Therapy from Seton Hill University. She has been a volunteer with Hope For The Warriors® since 2006, the beginning of the organization. She is a spouse of a United States Marine.