The emotional healing properties of the arts is well documented.
The story of Norwegian painter and printmaker Edvard Munch is a prime example. Best known for his late 19th century painting The Scream, as an adult, Munch used the brush and canvas as a way to mitigate the psychological effects of a tumultuous childhood.
And it’s been reported that Earnest Hemingway’s famous novel “A Farewell to Arms” is a therapeutic byproduct of his being seriously injured during World War II.
The use of art, whether it be painting, writing, singing, acting or other related creative outlets, has found a place in mainstream mental health programs for veterans. This fact is welcomed news as the rates of mental health problems continue to rise for the men and women who have chosen to serve our nation. It is also important considering the limitations noted with more mainstream treatments like evidence-based psychotherapies and medication.
The Impact of Wars
Indeed, over a decade of dual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has contributed to unprecedented rates of psychiatric illness in our bravest to include post traumatic stress disorder, depression, social anxiety and substance abuse.
A series of reports recently published in JAMA Psychiatry highlight the cruel reality that depression and episodes of anger and rage, respectively, are five and six times higher among service members compared to their civilian counterparts.
The most disturbing statistic is the rate of post traumatic stress disorder. This potentially disabling condition characterized by nightmares and disturbing thoughts is estimated to be 15 times higher in those who have donned the uniform. These statistics are troubling considering the rates of these disorders are not insignificant in the civilian population.
Historically, veterans with PTSD have been treated with an array of powerful psychiatric medications and intensive talk therapies. Depending on the medication or therapy employed, effectiveness varies as does the rate of treatment dropout.
Regarding the latter, studies have shown dropout rates as high as 50 percent for both types of treatment. One particular treatment that has been criticized for its dropout rate is prolonged exposure–an emotionally distressing treatment that forces the patient to relive the traumatic experience through imaginal and in vivo exposure.
Often seen as better tolerated and believed by some as comparably effective, is the use of creative means for overcoming combat stress. The most notable is art therapy.
Relief by Art
Research, albeit limited, supports the notion that deliberately engaging in art provides relief from the distressing psychological and physical symptoms of PTSD. Painting, drawing, and sculpting promote positive feelings and assist the veteran with overcoming negative emotions like shame and guilt. This accomplishment is all done while participating in a non-threatening, fun and creative activity.
The power of art is exemplified by the experience of a recent veteran who completed a seven day combat stress recovery program with Boulder Crest Retreat (www.bouldercrestretreat.org), a privately funded wellness center in Bluemont, VA.
In addition to equine, recreational, and various forms of education and group therapy, art is used as a way to process trauma and its complex emotions at the center.
“The act of creativity has always allowed me to project my issues into the physical world where I can be OK with them, and sometimes even find beauty in them. Surprisingly, others are moved and find beauty in what comes from those dark places. The best part of this process is when the world falls away and there is nothing but my marks on a surface that I coax into a living image.”
The 19th century Danish author Hans Christian Anderson said:
“Where words fail, music speaks.”
You would be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn’t experience a reduction in stress hormones or increase in mood after singing along to a few of their favorite tunes.
Music therapy is by no means a new concept. What is relatively new, however, is the use of music and songwriting to help veterans heal from their psychological wounds.
The innovative organization SongwritingWithSoldiers (www.songwritingwithsoldiers.org) offers retreats where professional musicians are paired with service members to write songs. These relationships produce unique musical compositions and are based on the service member’s combat and life experiences.
As noted by the organization, through these collaborative ventures, soldiers are able “to tell their stories, rebuild trust, release pain, and forge new bonds.”
A testimonial from their website by a participant and volunteer makes this point.
“Many of my friends ask me, ‘How did you find such peace and healing when writing about some of the darkest days of your life?’ For me, it’s about bringing those dark days to the surface and acknowledging those emotions and memories.”
Relief from PTSD doesn’t have to come from a pill bottle or therapy room. Granted, for many veterans, medication and talk therapy play a crucial role in recovery from post traumatic stress and related psychiatric disorders. But, effective paths to growth and resilience can be found in the less intrusive and more comfortable, familiar, and creative areas of life.
*This article was adapted from a previous article written by Dr. Moore for his column “Kevlar for the Mind” and the website “Lifezette.”