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Investing in Arts Education

Veterans and Service Members Are Seeing Huge Benefits from Art Therapy

Photo: Courtesy of Hannah Skelly

It’s not an obvious pairing, but returning military service members and the arts go hand in hand.

Of the more than 500,000 members of America’s military living with traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from combat, only half of service members and veterans needing treatment pursue care. As the health and well-being of our service members and veterans is a national priority, the U.S. Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have partnered with the National Endowment for the Arts to expand the Arts Endowment’s Creative Forces initiative, which seeks to improve the health, wellness, and quality of life for military and veteran populations exposed to trauma, including their families and caregivers, through creative arts therapies as a key part of a comprehensive set of protocols in clinical settings across the country.

The Creative Forces initiative began in 2011 when Walter Reed National Military Medical Center invited the National Endowment for the Arts to help build out a creative arts therapy program at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), a “center for healing hope and discovery.” After successfully piloting the program at Walter Reed, the Arts Endowment was invited by Fort Belvoir in Virginia to replicate the program in their own integrative care facility. The initiative has since expanded to additional military and veteran medical facilities across the country and added a telehealth program to reach patients in rural and remote areas.

Christopher Stowe, a retired Marine master gunnery sergeant who went through the Creative Forces program and knows firsthand the benefit of creative arts therapies, said, “I can state unequivocally that art therapy has helped me to be a better human, husband, father, and friend. I can also state unequivocally that art therapy has helped save my life.”

Michael Schneider was in the United States Marine Corps for 22 years and as a result of his service, had a traumatic brain injury and PTSD. At the NICoE Walter Reed, he worked with Creative Forces music therapist, Rebecca Vaudreuil. “The best part is it challenged me, and it found a new space in my brain that opened up that I never knew I had,” said Schneider of the experience. “That seemed to be the one thing that helped, kind of, bypass my injury.” Schneider also found that when he left the military, music became an important component in that transition. Understanding this need, the National Endowment for the Arts has also created a community component to Creative Forces, in partnership with state and local arts agencies.

This community component began with summits that brought together the arts and military communities surrounding each of the Creative Forces clinical sites. This was an opportunity to build bridges between these two communities, and to discuss ways to offer increased arts programs for service members, veterans, and their families and caregivers. The National Endowment for the Arts has since funded ten Community Connections projects, which include pop-up musical performances by service members, veterans, and local musicians; creative writing workshops; veteran storytelling podcasts; and trainings that support improved collaboration among local arts and military communities. The organizations leading these projects are documenting the lessons they’ve learned as a way to help others interested in developing arts and military programming that can support wellness and quality of life.

In San Diego, California, Resounding Joy led a Community Connections project to provide pop-up community creative arts cafés around San Diego County. These cafés connect members of the general public to the area’s military community, introduce service members and veterans to different art forms, and raise awareness of organizations that work with military populations. Retired SGT Benjamin Tourtelot is one service member who took part in a café, where he performed alongside his daughter and mother. “Music is the best thing for me,” he said. “It brought me back to life. Having my family there performing beside me was reassuring that I am in the right place doing the right thing.”

Understanding the impact and benefit of this work, whether it’s creative arts therapies in a clinical setting or arts programs in the community, is a central component of research associated with Creative Forces. Initial findings indicate that creative arts therapies can help recovery through meaning-making, positive reframing, reducing symptoms associated with PTSD including flashbacks and nightmares, and encouraging hope, gratification, and confidence through strengths-based rehabilitation.

A Creative Forces observational study published in 2018 by BMJ Open, a journal published by British Medical Journal, one of the world’s oldest peer-reviewed medical journals, examined masks created by 370 service members in creative arts therapy sessions and found intriguing associations between visual imagery and measures of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress among active-duty military service members with TBI.

Correlations were found that pointed to more positive measures for service members who explored themes in their artwork like social connections to others, a strong sense of belonging, and shared sense of purpose with others. The study also revealed that artwork created by military service members can convey valuable information for doctors. This benefit is especially important for patients who struggle to verbally express their thoughts and feelings.

This sense of community and connection has resonated in Creative Forces efforts outside of the clinic as well. While it can be tempting to consider the arts and the military to be strange bedfellows, collaborators on Creative Forces, both military and civilian, have been learning that the opposite can be true. This past November, Creative Forces community project leaders from across the country met to share the most important takeaways captured so far to better understand the value and benefits community arts engagement can bring for local military and veteran populations. Noah White, executive director of the Jacksonville Onslow Council for the Arts, which has been supporting an open studio for service members near the Creative Forces clinical site at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, put it this way: “We’re giving them their sense of tribe back, and now I feel like I’m part of that tribe too.” 

Through the arts, service members and veterans as well as their families are finding ways to reestablish a sense of purpose and meaning in their own lives. Local military and local arts providers are learning from the artwork and from each other as they work to build stronger connections. The strengthening community speaks to one of the most important lessons shared across the Creative Forces network so far; we all become stronger and more resilient when we have each other’s backs. 

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