The leaders of a new local program to provide art therapy for veterans dealing with trauma have made a discovery: sometimes the most resistant participant ends up getting the most out of it.

For veterans who have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder or other forms of service-related trauma, applying paint to canvas or simply cutting out and pasting images from a magazine can often be a better form of expression than sitting around and talking about it.

St. Paul-based Ars Bellum Foundation has partnered with the Adler Graduate School, a Richfield school that offers a master of arts degree in counseling and psychotherapy, to create a clinical art therapy program for Minnesota veterans. Modeled after a program developed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., licensed art therapists lead participants in small group sessions to identify and deal with their struggles, many that have been buried for decades. They meet wherever they can, often in local VFWs, which have been supportive of the program.

“It’s a nonthreatening environment where you can put your hands on it; where you don’t have to find a word to express a feeling or emotion,” said Ars Bellum Board Member Matthew Vater, a colonel in the Minnesota National Guard who has been deployed to Bosnia and Iraq. “You can use a symbol, you can use a picture, you can use a color or a shape. You can use a medium, be it clay, be it paint, be it collage.”

Ars Bellum, which translates into “arts of war,” is unique in the state. While the VA has more than a dozen art therapy programs across the country for trauma, none is in Minnesota.

Art therapy for veterans has proved effective in reducing some of the most chronic symptoms of PTSD, including anxiety, nightmares, anger outbursts and emotional numbing. It may work particularly well for veterans who have experienced the vast Veterans Affairs bureaucracy and come away intimidated or frustrated.

“It helps to reach a part that might not have been reached traditionally,” Vater said.

It’s not so much about whether the art is any good, but what the artist gets out of it, often in unexpected ways.

Many participants claim to have no artistic skill, but the therapist can use images selected by the vet that are often cut out of magazines to paste on a collage to bring out meanings.

In one collage, the vet chose a cutout image of a dinosaur to represent problems bigger than he thought he could handle. He started talking about his problems only after he had chosen the image.

Another vet chose a picture of a service dog. Animals and nature were very important to her sense of well-being, and the idea of a trained service dog as a companion gave her a sense of security.

“The therapist will just ask questions,” said Ars Bellum Chief Executive Officer Bridget Cronin. “They start to get to know each person and that helps to get them to clue in what might be troubling that person. It’s amazing how these art projects bring things out in people they don’t anticipate.”

Reaching out to vets

Ars Bellum finds vets through traditional sources such as VFWs and American Legions. But, particularly for younger vets, it is also reaching out through social media, in churches or even through their children at local PTAs or school newsletters.

Cronin said it’s important to connect art therapists around the state to veterans who might live outside the metro area, where resources may be more difficult to access and vets can feel more isolated.

“I don’t go to the VFW, I don’t go the Legion. My group of people are not of the generation that stops at the tavern on our way home from work,” said Ars Bellum Board President Michael Kemp, an Iraq war veteran.

In 2015, Ars Bellum served 53 vets and 47 family members. Veterans meet once a week over an eight-week period.

After the sessions, vets are offered the opportunity to do another round or move on to individual therapy or get recommendations for other therapy. There is a four-week family program and planning for an intensive two-day weekend program in which sessions alternate with nature walks, massages or other calming activities.

The programs are provided at no cost to veterans, but art therapy is covered by most insurance. It is funded through private donations and a grant from Tee It Up For The Troops, a charitable foundation focused on raising funds to help disabled U.S. military veterans. Ars Bellum is hoping to be certified soon to be able to bill directly to insurance companies for services so that veterans don’t have to be reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses or fill out paperwork.

“We’re trying to get people past this idea that there should be a stigma attached to mental health,” Kemp said. “Just as some people came home with very serious physical injuries and some were very slight, some people came home with very serious mental injuries and some were very slight. I don’t think anybody who served over there came home the same person that they were.”

Success can be quantified. Therapists interview vets before and after they participate in the program and can measure the decrease in symptoms such as anxiety or sleeplessness.

But the anecdotal evidence of success can also be powerful.

Cronin recalls one recent graduate, a Vietnam veteran who had struck out in several programs, both within and outside the VA. He had attempted suicide three times in recent years and had little hope that art therapy would help.

“By the end of the program he was in tears and said he never would have thought it would have the kind of impact it would have on him,” Cronin said. “It’s given him a way to ‘talk’ about some of the bad traumatic things that happened to him that he had no idea how to otherwise deal with. Just getting that out, getting that weight off his shoulders was a big relief to him.”

 

For more information about Ars Bellum Foundation go to http://www.arsbellumfoundation.org.