Bandaging mental battle wounds with art


When combat-induced trauma threatens to scar an identity, break family bonds or sink a soldier into depression, a community of psychologists believes art is the way to fight back.
In a presentation sponsored by the American Art Therapy Association and Friends of the Torpedo Factory, guests at the Torpedo Factory Art Center learned how art doubles as therapy for military veterans Friday. Sgt. Kristopher Battles an artist commissioned by the U.S. Marine Corps to document combat operations through art shared his experiences of using creativity to heal in the midst of war. 
Its a morale booster, said Battles, who describes himself as a father figure to the young soldiers occupying the landscapes of his portraits. The young marines were very open to it, even though at first they wondered what people were doing there with sketchpads They feel valued.
He often comes across Marines who share his passion for art and his post-war issues. Signature ailments afflicting veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan include posttraumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and severe depression.
Ill go over to them and let them show me what they can do But just because Im doing art doesnt mean I havent been dealing with these problems too, he said. 
Enough veterans are unresponsive to traditional therapy to fuel the construction of a $65 million center devoted to researching alternative treatments the National Intrepid Center of Excellence in Bethesda. Melissa Walker, who established an art therapy program there, has researched the relationship between trauma and creativity.
Trauma is encoded [by the brain] as light, sound and imagery, she said. The language areas of the brain shut down, especially when [victims] try to verbalize their trauma. The area responsible for artistic creativity lights up.
It is natural for someone to express that experience using art to process their sensory experiences on the battlefield, she said.
This is true of all trauma, not just post-war shock, said Susan Corrigan, director of the American Art Therapy Association, headquartered in Old Town.
The more than 5,000 credentialed art therapists in the U.S. typically work in private practices. But they can also be found in settings that range from hospitals to schools, according to Judy Rollins, co-founder of a program called Allies in the Arts, which brings veterans and art therapy together at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It can be difficult for families to approach their wounded loved ones, she said, and her program helps bridge the gap.      
Over half of the participants are adult family members and their children, she said Art helps break the ice sometimes. 
There is an important distinction between art and art therapy, according to Corrigan. Art therapists must have at least a masters degree in the subject in order to practice clinically. Lauren Hayes, graduate of George Washington Universitys art therapy program and Alexandria resident, described the role of the therapist as a facilitator.
They are a witness to what [the patients] are expressing, she said. Its one thing to make art on your own, and that too is therapeutic, but another to have that person there experiencing it with you and giving you the tools to express yourself.  Therapists are trained to know what materials to use. Maybe clay is not the best material for a fragile person, for example.
Visual art isnt the only option for therapy in Rollins program. Poets and musicians help as well. One of her  patients, who forgot how to play guitar after spending years at war, learned to play again with the help of a musician.
Theyre not who they were when they were deployed, and yet they are, she said. Its a real struggle to find identity.