Art Therapy for Veterans

Helping Veterans Recover from PTSD and TBI
Nov 10, 2014 7:50 PM ET

Art Therapy For Veterans Returning wtih PTSD, TBI

The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) salutes our troops and extends deep appreciation to all of the United States military service members who have served our country both at home and abroad. We commemorate this Veterans Day by highlighting the importance of mental health support for our service members – especially those returning from war and other dangerous circumstances. The effects of war, and the challenges of reintegration into society when service members return home, are well-known phenomena. Many veterans struggle to make sense of their combat experiences, and some return with symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) – conditions that have been linked to rising suicide rates. So, providing accessible, effective treatment for veterans is a critical priority. 

Art therapy is an effective means to overcome the symptoms of PTSD and TBI. Post-traumatic disorders involve non-verbal mental activity that escapes or overrides verbal thinking (Gantt & Tinnin, 2009). Art therapy works because artmaking accesses the sensory and affective areas in the brain that are not available for verbal processing. But, with PTSD, healing is not achieved merely through the release of emotions, or the resolution of internal conflict. Rather, healing takes place through restoring a sense of order, promoting closure, putting traumatic events in the past, imbuing nonverbal material with verbal description, and re-contextualizing fragmented experiences – stages that, when processed sequentially in art therapy, effectively reduce symptoms such as dissociation, emotional detachment, and more. 

A professional art therapist is uniquely equipped to facilitate such a process for the Veteran with PTSD. Art therapy services are provided in a variety of settings throughout the country. The National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and notable military and VA health facilities across the nation, have recognized art therapy as an effective and needed treatment for returning military personnel suffering from PTSD and TBI. Furthermore, art therapy is successfully bridging with the high-tech world to increase accessibility of services for veterans, such as with the development of computer-based graphic novel authoring tools, funded by the Department of Defense. Given the rise in telehealth distance options, this flexible solution adaptable to varied client and therapist needs will open new pathways to treatment and healing. 

For more information about art therapy or how to find a professional art therapist near you, please visit the American Art Therapy Association website at References Gantt, L. & Tinnin, L. W. (2009). Support for a neurobiological view of trauma with implications for art therapy. The Arts in Psychotherapy: An International Journal, 36, 148–153.