How Art Therapy Helps Veterans

In late August, David “Lebo” Le Batard led a creative workshop for veterans in Pompano Beach, Florida. He asked them to write three words about why they attended.

One veteran named Dave wrote three poignant words: “I have PTSD.”

After returning home from their time in active service, many veterans find themselves struggling with the impact of the intense physical and emotional stress they encountered during their tour of duty. This can manifest as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—a condition that can lead to feelings of guilt, depression, anxiety, and hopelessness.

Traditional methods of treating post-traumatic stress include psychological assessment or medication, but one avenue has increasingly becoming a recognized remedy for military veterans coping with PTSD: Art therapy.

“A Pictorial History of the United States Army”
(Also known as “To Make Men Free”), (original image 1940s; 2012), Norman Rockwell

As Lebo touched upon during his seminar, art therapy can be a creative way to help veterans overcome their traumas and give them a vehicle for expressing themselves through the artistic process.

“This creative workshop is really meant to free the creative spirit that I believe is inside all of us, and to use that to be able to heal a traumatic experience we’ve been through or just be able to understand the world around us better,” Lebo says.

Lebo leads veterans in a creative exercise involving the alphabet. (Image courtesy of Lebo)

According to Creative Forces, a national military healing arts program, more than 500,000 men and women of the U.S. armed services live with a traumatic brain injury or PTSD. Created as a joint venture between the National Endowment of the Arts and the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, Creative Forces places art therapy at the core of its patient care in 11 clinical sites.

Creative Forces reports that 85 percent of patients at the Walter Reed National Medical Center said that art therapy was helpful to their healing. The network estimates art therapy for PTSD could save more than $1,000 in healthcare costs per veteran, or $1.7 billion.

Veterans work on their art.

A study by the Creative Arts Therapies Department at Concordia University has further highlighted the benefits of art therapy for veterans. The study, conducted by undergraduate Cheryl Miller, asked Canadian veterans ages 28 to 56 who participated in military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to participate in art therapy twice a week.

“Through art, participants were able to express positive feelings, externalize difficult emotions and gain insight into their PTSD symptoms,” Miller said. “Art making fostered discussion and allowed veterans to show empathy for one another.”

Another study looked at how 246 United Kingdom veterans responded to a six-week intensive program to treat PTSD. A total of 87 percent of veterans saw a reduction in PTSD symptoms due to the program, which included art therapy.

These studies only support what the veterans at Lebo’s workshop experienced first-hand. In a video documenting the event, veterans spoke about how creating art was helping them let go of their anxiety.

Lebo with U.S. Navy veteran Bob and U.S. Marine veteran “Zipcode” at an art workshop held in Florida. (Image courtesy of Liz Priore)

At one point, each participant drew on a canvas prepared by Lebo, who suggested they memorialize someone through their art. One U.S. Marine veteran—who went by “Zipcode”—honored a soldier who helped him survive in Vietnam, noting that the therapy made it easier to speak about his fallen friend.

“Veterans, for me, are one of the most underserved citizens that we have,” Lebo says. “If we can use my work—in whatever capacity—to help whatever suffering they might be going through, to me it’s just a small way of saying thank you.”

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