Diana Moon, DCoE Public Affairs on April 26, 2013
Michelle Sterkowicz, supervisory arts specialist, shows soldiers from the Warrior Transition Unit how to use the pottery wheel during a Resiliency through Art class. (U.S. Army photo)
At first glance, there isn’t an obvious connection between the military and the arts — at least that was my impression before I attended the second “National Summit: Arts, Health and Well-being Across the Military Continuum,” part of the National Initiative for Arts and Health in the Military. There, I learned that art therapy is gaining recognition as a healing exercise for service members with psychological health concerns and traumatic brain injury.
Listening to a presenter from the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, I started to understand how the arts can contribute to well-being. The hard work of rehabilitation and recovery is softened by the enjoyment of the medium and the departure from physical and mental challenges it provides. Working on a painting or writing your thoughts down in a poem creates an outlet for self-expression that may reduce stress and reveal newfound skills and ways of communicating with the world around you.
It was interesting hearing the first-hand experiences of therapists from their sessions with service members. They agreed that the intense emotion and memory of trauma, often difficult for many service members to convey in words, may be more easily expressed through visual art, music, dance or poetry. For example, an art therapist working with a service member who has posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may combine drawing and collage activities with cognitive behavioral therapy to help their patient reframe negative thinking and reduce stress. It’s like talking through creating, whether the medium is a canvas, a drum, or a poem.
“Many of the experiences associated with art, such as improved access to emotions, connections with others and sense of purpose and meaning, are important components of the warrior’s journey back home, and back to wholeness,” explained Dr. Mark Bates, Deployment Health Clinical Center (DHCC) population health associate director.
Bates and Dr. Marina Khusid, DHCC chief medical officer of integrative medicine, participated in a panel discussion on the importance of psychological resilience to the health outcomes of service members, and how art therapy might be applied in treatment.
“Group music therapy was effective for PTSD patients who were not responding to cognitive behavioral therapy,” said Khusid about findings between traditional treatment and working with music.
Following the keynote address and the first two morning panels, I had the opportunity to watch a performance by Exit12 Dance Company. Exit12 is co-founded by Roman Baca, a U.S. Marine veteran who deployed to Iraq from 2005 to 2006. Prior to his service, he was a ballet dancer. Battling his own experiences with PTSD after returning home, he found that choreography helped him express his feelings and experiences related to his deployment. Baca has since choreographed several works relating to the military and from his own war experiences. This particular performance entitled, “Conflict(ed),” dealt with contrasts between the military and Middle East. I found it to be an emotionally provocative piece, as dancers in military fatigues and Middle Eastern garb danced separately, then together, but never really united.
In addition to supporting creative arts engagement programs, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, which hosted the summit, and organizations like National Endowment for the Arts, are developing clinical research to evaluate the potential health benefits of creative arts therapy interventions for service members.
An important lesson I learned from this experience is that health care is more than just treating illness with medicine. It’s about a multi-faceted approach to promote well-being, and from what was shared at the summit, something the arts may have an important role in as well.
Learn more about the use of arts in the military, and share your thoughts about art therapy or your experience with it below.