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Make art not war

Art therapy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder after combat
April 18, 2011
By Sylvain-Jacques Desjardins
Source: Concordia Journal

Art therapy can benefit soldiers who have seen active duty, according to research conducted in the Creative Arts Therapies Department.
Art therapy can benefit soldiers who have seen active duty, according to research conducted in the Creative Arts Therapies Department.

After carrying guns in combat, soldiers who return from Afghanistan and Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would do well to grab paintbrushes and pencils. A new study has found that art therapy can help alleviate psychological traumas that come from the horrors of war.

While art therapy as a PTSD treatment has been examined before, no studies have previously investigated its effects on soldiers who participated in military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. “According to a 2008 report from Veterans Affairs Canada, 10 per cent of Canadian soldiers who’ve been exposed to war zones develop chronic post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Cheryl Miller, who completed her study as part of her master’s thesis in Concordia’s Department of Creative Arts Therapies.

Miller conducted her research at a government-operated veterans’ hospital. Art therapy was offered to PTSD-affected soldiers twice per week in group sessions, as a conduit to externalize recurring sentiments of fear, shame and anger. “Through art, participants were able to express positive feelings, externalize difficult emotions and gain insight into their PTSD symptoms,” says Miller. “Art-making fostered discussion and allowed veterans to show empathy for one another.”

Veterans who took part in the study were 28 to 56 years in age and suffered problems such as insomnia, nightmares, anxiety, hypervigilance, depression, suicidal thoughts, isolation, chronic pain and interpersonal problems. “All participants had served in the Canadian Forces and experienced various types of trauma,” Miller explains.

Participants made use of an array of art materials: paints, markers, charcoal, clay, Plasticine and images for collage. “They produced artworks based on themes such as anger versus tolerance, grief and loss versus new beginnings,” says Miller. “The aim was to give participants an opportunity to express their emotions and to explore their hopes and goals for the future.”

After each session, behaviour observation forms were completed by therapists and nurses. “All staff members noted how art therapy seemed to have a positive impact on participants,” says Miller.

Group dynamics were found to be a major strength of the study. “Through the process of creating and discussing art with peers, participants were able to open up and express important thoughts and emotions in an atmosphere of mutual support,” Miller says, noting groups appeared to be particularly useful in addressing issues of avoidance: loss of interest in pleasurable activities, feelings of detachment and a foreshortened sense of the future.

“Art therapy can engage the creative potential of individuals — especially those suffering from PTSD,” says Miller’s supervisor, Josée Leclerc, a professor in the Department of Creative Arts Therapies. “Art therapy is considered a mind-body intervention that can influence physiological and psychological symptoms. The experience of expressing oneself creatively can reawaken positive emotions and address symptoms of emotional numbing in individuals with PTSD.”

Miller has presented her findings at several conferences, including the 2010 meeting of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. What’s more, the program she developed for this study has become a permanent treatment component at the hospital where it was tested.

With a high number of soldiers who return with PTSD following tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, Miller stresses, creative treatment solutions must be explored. “Individuals with PTSD often have difficulty verbalizing their feelings,” she says. “Art therapy can complement other types of treatment for PTSD because it provides an alternative to verbal expression. Art therapy groups can provide opportunities for peer bonding and appear to reawaken positive emotions in participants.”

Related links:
•  Cited study
•  Concordia Department of Creative Arts Therapies

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