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Art of War: Service members use art to relieve PTSD symptoms

By Cpl. Andrew D. Johnston | | May 11, 2012

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Not all fights in the Marine Corps are fought on the frontline; some are only skin deep. According to a 2008 study from the Center for Military Health Policy Research, 14.8 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans return home with combat related post-traumatic stress disorder.

Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune, N.C., is using the Art Therapy Program, which started in 2009, to help advance its mental health rehabilitation program and combat PTSD. Gala Elliott, an art therapist with Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune, Directorate of Mental Health, said when she arrived at the clinic, the therapy was still a pilot program. Now, weekly attendance is nearly 10 times larger, thanks to positive feedback and noticeable improvements in participants’ PTSD symptoms.

“Art therapy is for people dealing with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, anxiety and depression,” said Elliott. “Really, anybody who wants to use a non-verbal approach for processing their combat injuries, either physical or psychological, will benefit from it.”

During the group sessions, participants use a variety of art supplies, including paints, clay, markers, charcoal and images for collages, to express their thoughts, feelings and memories.

Lance Cpl. Mark Reinhold, an infantryman with 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, was a little skeptical when his doctor referred him to art therapy as part of his PTSD treatment. Once he got involved and noticed the changes, however, he was sold.

“Really what happened with me, and what I see happen with a lot of other people, is it’s an escape from your everyday, sit-down-and-talk counseling session,” said Reinhold. “It’s a way to really figure out how you’re feeling without having someone digging at you. You figure it out for yourself without having to verbalize it. You figure it out for yourself without someone telling you.”

Using art as a form of expression can subconsciously bring up underlying issues individuals don’t realize are there, Elliot explained. Once the issues are identified, they are easier to resolve, she said.

“It brings up things that are repressed – the thoughts and feelings that are lying underneath your consciousness,” said Elliot. “Then you put it on paper through art and, once you take a step back to reflect on the art, you’ll see that it’s showing you a part of yourself that you might not even know is there.”

One of Elliot’s groups held an art expo May 3 to help raise awareness about PTSD and the benefits of art therapy. For Reinhold this was well out of his comfort zone, but thanks to the therapy, he said it helped him deal with his PTSD symptoms.

“I had really bad anxiety problems, but after doing this kind of treatment, I’ve definitely seen improvements,” said Reinhold. “I mean, hell, I’m here doing this expo and, normally, I can’t be around crowds of people. It’s helping me cope with these types of issues, and I’m meeting new people.”

Elliot believes one reason art therapy has the kind of effect it does on PTSD patients is recent evidence shows creative thinking and activities can have a kind of healing effect on the brain.

“The more and more research science is doing shows creative experiences, such as art, stimulates certain parts of the brain that can help in recovering from traumatic events, either physical or psychological,” said Elliot. “So to have someone who couldn’t find the words to verbalize their emotions and memories finally have an outlet through art, it can be a heavy weight lifted off their conscience.”

All of the therapy is completely confidential and available to anyone with a referral from their primary care physician or medical officer. Individual sessions can be arranged, and group sessions are offered weekly. According to Reinhold, “If you’re battling PTSD, you won’t be disappointed!”

“I’ve been doing this for a few months now, and I’ve definitely noticed a difference,” said Reinhold. “My other therapies started to become easier, my anxiety is way down, and just overall, I feel better. Anyone dealing with combat-related stress is going to walk away from this therapy a better person. Some people might not take it seriously, and I didn’t at first, but I can tell you I’m handling situations better and this therapy really does work.”


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