Art Therapy for PTSD

By Rory Berry, Navy Veteran

I recently had the pleasure to meet Melissa Walker, who uses art therapy to work with victims of TBI and PTSD at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.  I was fascinated to hear how she was able to work with Veterans to provide healing for the invisible wounds of war in a way that pills and traditional counseling cannot.

In her TED talk she tells the audience how she uses art-making as a psychotherapeutic intervention, and has seen amazing results for patients.  One of her techniques is to guide the Veterans through mask-making, allowing the servicemember to create a physical manifestation of their trauma so that they can more easily confront and understand it.  From her therapy, servicemembers have crafted over 1000 masks, and many have seen remarkable improvements in their mental health.

The use of art for therapeutic purposes is not a new concept, but the systematic application of proven techniques is a great development in expanding treatment options for Veterans with TBI and PTSD.  The military’s willingness to integrate alternative therapies is encouraging and shows a willingness to go beyond the minimum effort to help rehabilitate disabled Veterans.

Many Veterans turn to art on their own, or through encouragement.  We have been fortunate at our Firm to receive stories, poems, and works of art from clients who are proud of their work and want to share it with others.  We regularly publish submissions in our newsletter and take great honor in the opportunity to be part of the healing process by being an outlet for creative expression.

Beyond standard visual art, there have been fascinating forays into other outlets for creative expression, including setting up a garden at the Los Angeles VA facility.  At the same VA, they have experimented with dance lessons, yoga, meditation, creative writing, and silkscreening, trying to reach individual patients in a way that is therapeutic for them.

In an ideal scenario, there would be a course of treatment that was effective for all Veterans with PTSD.  Instead, because each trauma experience is unique, the means of treating it need to be unique as well.  Art therapy has shown great promise, but even if it achieves widescale adoption, there is still the question of what kind of art will work for which individuals.  A Veteran who responds well to mask making may not find any relief in creative writing; one servicemember may find gardening therapeutic and see the promise of new life as refreshing, while another may find it too reminiscent of the fragility of life.

Each instance of PTSD and TBI is unique, and the courses of treatment are forever improving.  For now, it is reassuring that the VA is taking art seriously as a means of rehabilitation.