Veterans and Recovery

Veterans and Recovery: Can Art Help the Healing Process?
by Claire Staples

There will be 983,844 military veterans living in New York State by 2040, according to The United States Department for Veteran Affairs. That equates to double the amount of residents living in Staten Island alone. With 22,225,541 currently serving from across the US by the time their service ends many will have witnessed first hand the tough and brutal situations that come with conflict. If Josac Narosky's quote is to be believed, that 'in war, there are no unwounded soldiers' then communities in our state, like every other in the country, must continue to find ways to help them cope with their transition back into civilian life and overcome any troubled memories they may have gained. 

The need for art therapy: the context of health among ex-servicemen and women

According to the Congressional Budget Office, around 28% of veterans who took part in recent overseas conflicts were seeking treatment at their local VA center between 2004 and 2009 for mental health issues. This included those diagnosed as suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) or a combination of both. The office admitted that those figures could be an underestimation of the true rate if factors such as social stigma and reluctance to undergo treatment had bore a sufficient impact on those turning to the centers for help. Regardless of the exact numbers the increasing proportion of veterans who have committed suicide is frightening. Around 8,000 veterans, an average of 22 a day, are dying each year according to the Department of Veteran Affairs. The New York Times suggested that this figure was one that had increased dramatically from 10.2% of all ex-personnel in 2002 to 18% in 2012, double the rate of the civilian population. On top of this, those suffering from serious substance abuse post service has increased during recent years with prescription drug abuse tripling and heavy alcohol use also becoming more prevalent. This has led to an increase in veterans seeking drug and alcohol addiction recovery programs alongside help for injuries caused whilst out in the field.

Factors such as homeless and unemployment do not help combat the long-lasting effects of military service on mental and physical health. Whilst around roughly 2% of the US civilian population has been homeless on any one night according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness as many as 13% of the veteran population have slept rough. Meanwhile unemployment rates remain almost the same as within the civilian population. When the broad skill sets acquired whilst serving are taken into account this figure looks oddly high.

The potential of the arts

Many forms of clinical treatment exist in the US to try cure health problems among veterans through cognitive and exposure techniques. Traditionally this has comprised of one-on-one sessions, hypnotherapy and group work. Art therapy works by incorporating these same methods but focuses on encouraging expression in alternative ways. Whilst the former rely more on verbal communication the arts, such as painting and sculpting, music and theater aid expression through kinesthetic and visual means. Academics have noted that due to the fact that most traumatic memories are non verbal arts have a great potential to help individuals tap into them whilst at the same time safely distancing them from the distressing affect. Former Florida senator Bob Graham highlighted this value in the Congressional Record when he said: "Art therapists provide effective treatment and health maintenance intervention for Veterans, focusing on all of their life challenges, such as mental, physical, and cognitive impairments. Intense emotion and memory, often difficult to convey in words, often are more easily expressed in images with the guidance of a trained clinician...Given the number of Veterans gradually returning from the current war in Iraq, art therapy has the potential to assist them as a form of rehabilitation.”

The American Art Therapy Association said that it uses the technique to help veterans in all manner of situations, from relieving depression amongst mental health sufferers, adding to the quality of life for those needing assisted care or in hospices and promoting motor skills to aid their physical rehabilitation. In some situations expression through artistic forms is the only way wounded veterans can interact with others. A Washington Post article explained how a young soldier communicated through a paint brush after losing his ability to walk, talk and eat.

In recent years veteran arts therapy has boomed across states as more artists have undergone dedicated training to become art therapists through Registration (ATR) or Board Certification (ATR-BC). This means that they become able to give professional counselling and psychotherapy through creative processes. Notable groups who have engaged veterans in art include Combat Paper Project, Veteran Artist Program and the National Endowment for the Arts, who helped members create masks to express their sometimes conflicted feelings. For Our Country, a music project that wants veterans to make music based on their experiences, will take the work of veterans nationwide alongside several film and mixed arts showcases including The Department of Veterans Affairs annual creative arts festival and the GI Film Festival. 

Local Central New York groups:
Syracuse Veterans' Writing Group





Posted On: March 25, 2014
Listed As: Arts Forum