By Terri Moon Cronk, AFPS
BETHESDA, Md. – An art therapist is using the power of creativity to help service members heal from traumatic brain injuries and psychological health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
Melissa Walker designed the Healing Arts Program at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence on the campus of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center here. She is the program’s sole art therapist, and also serves as its coordinator. The program aims to help the recovering service members find a creative haven where their buried post-war thoughts and emotions can come to the surface through art and therapy.
With gentle encouragement from Walker, active-duty troops create their way to healing. By working on their art projects in a personal manner, they confront the circumstances of their injuries and begin to overcome the uncertainty they might feel, she said.
“What’s bothering them runs the gamut of that moment in time: … the frozen trauma, the frozen memory. They can’t seem to shake what they’ve internalized,” Walker said.
The center provides treatment, recovery, rehabilitation and, sometimes, reintegration to active duty for service members who have psychological health issues and traumatic brain injury. All have mild to moderate post-traumatic stress disorder, and most also have had some kind of head injury from exposure to a blast injury or fall, Walker said.
When these service members come to the center, they’re often in a confused place, and some experience a loss of identity. Those who want to return to duty have a difficult time because they’re passionate about their jobs, and those who will rejoin the civilian world wonder what they’ll face, she said.
“They need to realize, ‘It’s time to take care of myself,’” she said.
Art therapy is one element of the center’s interdisciplinary treatment. Walker, who designed the Healing Arts Program when the center opened two years ago, said creating art slows down the brain so people can focus and improve their cognitive skills and hand-eye coordination.
Walker’s interest in the effects of war on troops stems from childhood memories of her grandfather returning from military service in Korea with what she now believes was post-traumatic stress. But, she said, “there wasn’t a name for it then.” White House, Defense Department and Veterans Affairs officials have made traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress treatment and prevention a top priority during the past decade of war.
Walker begins her treatment by meeting the service members one-on-one so she can get to know them and their goals while they are at the center. This also helps her meet the art therapy needs of each small group of about five people, she said. She has the service members design a mask, a montage and a postcard in any design with any materials they want, from magazine clippings to beads and paint. Most of their artistic creations, she said, reflect their inner thoughts concerning deployment, their injuries, various war experiences, and their futures.
Since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military officials have recognized family members’ needs for support, and Walker’s Healing Arts Program is no exception. One night a week, family members come to Walker’s family class to do the same projects as the service members, to give this group of caregivers a break and a chance to “breathe,” Walker said.
Service members’ mask designs vary, she said, recalling a service member who divided his mask into the halves of two faces, depicting how he saw himself as both a civilian and a member of the military. The split-self has to do with identity, she said. Some who still have war images in their minds might design a scene of the injuries they and their fellow troops suffered.
The groups discuss their mask creations and what they mean. Walker said these discussions bring up personal and symbolic experiences. Sharing and discussing artwork establishes a sense of community and bonding with one another, which is particularly helpful to those with post-traumatic stress who tend to isolate themselves and don’t trust others, she said.
“Some feel a lot has been lifted off their shoulders,” she said of the group discussions. “Some will share things they never have before and feel validated. They realize they aren’t alone.”
Walker said the service members with psychological health issues and traumatic brain injury have “layers and layers of complications.” In a similar manner, the montages they design often reflect the past, present and future of who they are, which helps them clarify their sense of self, Walker said.
The art therapist described the montage of another student who created a representation of himself in three stages: gradually coming from the dark side of war, opening a door labeled “NICoE,” and stepping into brightness to depict healing, she said.
Walker’s goal at the final week’s commencement is to leave each
service member in “a forward-thinking mode,” by asking them to design a postcard with a “positive” hand-scribed note for one of the center’s recent graduates.
“One wrote, ‘Remember what you learned here,’” she said.
Walker said she is confident future studies will bear positive results of art therapy for those with PTSD and TBI. For now, she added, she stands determined to help people confront and cope with their wounds by expression through art.
“I always tell them, ‘I’m so glad you’re here and taking time for yourself, and the biggest step you’ve taken is being open to this,’” she said. “That’s huge. That’s brave.”