Art therapy has experienced tremendous growth over the past two decades, not only advancing treatment options but also advancing into different populations and treatment settings. In particular, art therapists have been working with a very special and unique population — the military.
For over 15 years, post-9/11 military service members and veterans have been coming home after serving sometimes multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. Many have sustained physical and psychological combat injuries and require extensive care. While medical advancements have made it possible to survive catastrophic injuries, the reality for those who do survive is that they may require extensive physical, hands-on care for many years to come. In addition to physical impacts, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are prevalent in the Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation New Dawn veteran populations, which poses tremendous daily challenges for the veteran and his or her entire family.
Stark cultures exist between the military and art therapy. The military — an institution and culture of rigid protocol, disciplined training, mission-focus; and art therapy — a profession based in creativity and the therapeutic relationship, within a fluid and flexible approach that offers myriad ways to openly express one’s feelings and thoughts. Yet many who serve in the military are finding art therapy to be their preferred method of treatment.
It’s a simple answer to a not-so-simple and pervasive issue challenging many military members who return from war: trauma. These two contrasting worlds of military service and art therapy intersect because art therapy has the means to assist service members, veterans and their families in dealing with combat trauma.
The American Art Therapy Association explains Art therapy is an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship (AATA, 2017).
In 2016, the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center reported that 352,619 US military service members worldwide have been diagnosed with TBI, with 82.3% cases classified as mild. Research points to the connection between PTSD and TBIs in military service members. In fact, recent studies link TBIs sustained during deployment to significant predictors of the service member developing symptoms of PTSD (Walker et. al., 2017).
Combat veterans are seeking art therapy to assist with trauma resolution, integrate with their TBI treatment plan, and provide coping mechanisms for PTSD symptoms. These therapies have become an increasingly accepted form of complementary care for military veterans (Nanda, Gaydos, Hathron, & Watkins, 2010). Art therapy, facilitated by a professional art therapist, effectively supports personal and relational treatment goals as well as community concerns (AATA, 2017).
Over the past 20 years, the field of neuroscience has grown exponentially and has contributed to advancing art therapy to the forefront of trauma-focused treatment today. Significant to the use of art therapy in trauma work is understanding the neurobiology of trauma, the biological study of the effects of trauma on the nervous system.