Art Therapy Helps Service Members Cope With Trauma

This art therapy mask created at the NICoE depicts demons coming out of the brain of the patient who created it. DoD photo by Katie Lange

This art therapy mask created at the NICoE depicts demons coming out of the brain of the patient who created it. DoD photo by Katie Lange

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

Imagine looking at a gallery of disturbing hand-painted masks, like one that has red eyes and dozens of pins sticking out of its face or another with a gaping, bloody hole where its mouth should be.

You can only imagine what dark thoughts they derived from. But that’s why they’re being made – to depict the pain, chaos and confusion of their creators, who are service members with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

Dozens of masks similar to those line the walls and tables of one of the rooms at the National Intrepid Center for Excellence. It’s all part of a nontraditional art therapy that seems to be causing some breakthroughs for even the most troubled of souls.Many of the patients involved said the program has helps them slow down their minds, as well as tell the stories of their trauma in a way that works better for them.

“Verbally, they might have difficulty explaining what has occurred,” said NICoE’s art therapist, Melissa Walker. “They might not be able to tell you exactly how it’s made them feel or affected their lives, but they can show you.”

Patients have to take one session of art therapy during their time at the NICoE. It’s a chance to relax and see if they’re willing to explore the therapy further. The masks are their focus during that session, and Walker said an overwhelming theme she sees is a split sense of self.

The mask in the middle show a split sense of self, while the mask on the right portrays chaos going on in the mind of its creator. DoD photo by Katie Lange

The mask in the middle show a split sense of self, while the mask on the right portrays chaos going on in the mind of its creator. DoD photo by Katie Lange

“We see a lot of, ‘Here’s my normal side and either my angry side or my military side,’” she said.

Many of the patients have depicted mental demons. One patient made a mask with bees coming out of its eyes and mouth to represent his chaotic thinking. Another mask portrayed calm seas on its left side, while the right pictured a dark and stormy shoreline.

Some patients struggle to get started on their masks, while others jump right in. But Walker said almost all of the patients show some sort of improvement in that first session.

“Many of them kind of timidly get into the process, but by the end of that first group, you see them kind of saying, ‘OK, wow, I just relaxed for two hours and that flew by,’ surprising themselves by their ability,” she said.

Unlike art classes, the therapy sessions aren’t about aesthetics or technique. They completely exclude critiques.

“It’s about what they’re symbolizing of themselves, and then the end product will be important to them because it’s symbolic of their experiences, identities, etc.,” Walker said.

Lots of NICoE patients have chosen to go back for more than one session, even if it’s just during their lunch or free time. Walker said her favorite part of the program is when those who have stuck with it create collage-like montages.

Several of the montage paintings made in NICoE's art therapy program depict progress for the PTSD and TBI patients involved. DoD photo by Katie Lange

Several of the montage paintings made in NICoE’s art therapy program depict progress for the PTSD and TBI patients involved. DoD photo by Katie Lange

“By that point, many of them come in, and they feel so comfortable they just get all the materials they need and dive right in,” Walker said. “You see a real change in them.”

Their artwork reflects that.

“A lot of the artwork has a lot of hopeful content – about moving forward, going home and their futures,” Walker said.

Many of the patients have even mentioned to Walker that they’d like to start picking up art therapy at home.

“Some even sought it out as their career after leaving, and that’s always really nice to hear, when it’s become a big part of their life,” she said.

Other providers at NICoE said they’ve gotten great feedback from their patients about art therapy. Walker said it’s often ranked as one of the most beneficial therapies that patients can engage in, but they also rate it as one they’re afraid they won’t have when they go back to normal life.

But good news for those who enjoy art therapy – programs like the one at NICoE are going to be expanding. Walker said more creative art therapists are going to be placed at different military treatment facilities in the U.S. over the next year.

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