The Healing Power of Creativity: Arts Therapy for Military Members

The positive effects of arts participation on academics have been widely noted, but the improved self-esteem, willingness to collaborate, and emotional intuition gained by arts participants lend themselves to therapeutic practices as well.

Earlier this year on November 12, the Department of Defense honored the importance of arts therapy for military members at the Healing Arts Recognition Event. Jane Chu, National Endowment for the Arts Chairman, remarked that “arts interventions sit at the core of integrative, patient-centered care. Above all, we are deeply inspired by how these service members use art-making as a tool to bolster their resilience and accelerate their ability to heal, and to carry out their commitment to serve our nation, and their communities and loved ones, to the fullest.” The programs in the Creative Arts Therapy partnership are aimed toward service members who experienced brain injuries and/or have post-traumatic stress and other psychological health conditions.


SGT Timothy Goodrich with his painting “Day 1 or Day 365” at the “Show of Strength” event at the Pentagon. Photo by Sally Gifford. (Source)


So what is creative arts therapy?

NEA Public Affairs Specialist Sally Gifford describes the process as “a non-invasive and cost-effective medical treatment in which certified creative arts therapists work closely with other health professionals to create individual treatment plans with measurable outcomes. Patients may receive therapies such as painting, ceramics, music therapy, and therapeutic writing to improve health conditions for a wide range of medical, physical, neurological, and psychological health issues, such as depression, anxiety, cognitive function, memory, and impaired motor skills.” Patients have exhibited improved cognitive skills, ability to deal with trauma, and ability to face frustrations related to transition processes and grief.

Jackie Biggs, creative arts therapist at the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, informed NEA writers Don Ball and Rebecca Gross that her patients sometimes describe their activities as “trick therapy. We’re not really tricking them, but just getting beneath the surface in a different way…Sometimes patients wind up feeling so overwhelmed that it’s hard to sort through what exactly is overwhelming them and what really is underlying all those emotions. Through creating the artwork and then talking about it later, they’re usually able to identify and pinpoint really what’s underlying what’s going on, and what they can target in therapy moving forward.”

At the 2015 Wounded Warrior Healing Arts Recognition event at the Pentagon, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. Jonathan Woodson noted that “the progress of creating can lead them places they otherwise [might not] access. It is safe to say we are all just beginning to understand how engagement in the arts can change lives of military members affected by traumatic brain injury to post-traumatic stress syndrome and other conditions. We know [the arts] can be an extremely powerful tool in assisting with recovery.”



Army Staff Sgt. Jonathan Meadows and Jackie Biggs discuss a painting during an art therapy session at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital. Photo by Marc Barnes, Department of Defense. (Source)


Creating art has been shown in studies to decrease stress hormones, relieving anxiety for those who have experienced high-stress environments and high-pressure situations like those encountered while on active duty. Art can help military members express themselves and externalize repressed feelings. Woodson continued in his address that “because of what they’ve experienced, service members often deal with a complex set of feelings and emotions that make it difficult to relate to people. The invisible wounds can lead to feelings of shame, guilt and identity crises that might cause them to retreat and engage in isolating behaviors. Art therapy is a lifeline out of that isolation.”


Air Force Master Sergeant Earl Covel working on an art piece at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Photo from NEA Arts Magazine. (Source)


For Nonprofit Quarterly’s report on Jane Chu’s Pentagon visit, Eileen Cunniffe profiled Master Sergeant Earl Covel, a “veteran of 12 overseas combat deployments who found himself struggling both physically and psychologically when he returned from his last deployment to a job at the Pentagon.” Cunniffe described that Covel was initially reluctant to participate in art creation, but he ended up completing a challenging self-portrait project – Covel summarized his therapy experiences, expressing that “art has been given back to me. It’s been a gift. I’ll get to take this with me and utilize it to process anything in the future.”


The mask in the middle shows a split sense of self, while the mask on the right portrays chaos going on in the mind of its creator. Photo by Katie Lange, Department of Defense. (Source)


Another notable arts therapy institution that aids military members is the National Intrepid Center of Excellence. At NICoE, patients focus on finding new ways to express themselves and tell the stories of their trauma. Speaking about her patients, art therapist Melissa Walker remarked that “verbally, they might have difficulty explaining what has occurred. They might not be able to tell you exactly how it’s made them feel or affected their lives, but they can show you. It’s about what they’re symbolizing of themselves, and then the end product will be important to them because it’s symbolic of their experiences, identities, etc.

“A lot of the artwork has a lot of hopeful content – about moving forward, going home and their futures,” Walker continued, and this hopefulness is reflected in the NICoE’s plans for expansion, as well as plans for more art therapists to be placed at military treatment facilities across the U.S. in the upcoming year.



Sources and Further Reading:

“Arts & Human Development Task Force.” National Endowment for the Arts.

Ball, Don; Gross, Rebecca. “Beneath the Surface: Creative Art Therapy at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.” NEA Arts Magazine.

Cronk, Terri Moon. “Art Therapy Provides Lifeline for Wounded Warriors.” U.S. Department of Defense. 12 November 2015.

Cunniffe, Eileen. “Creative Arts Therapy Helps Military Patients to Heal.” Nonprofit Quarterly. 1 December 2015.

Gifford, Sally. “Creative Arts Therapy a Useful Tool for Military Patients.” National Endowment for the Arts. 12 November 2015.

Gifford, Sally. “Links between Arts, Learning, and Neuroscience Examined in New NEA Report.” National Endowment for the Arts. 29 July 2015.

Kimmons, Sean. “Art therapy helps close the wounds of Air Force vets.” Air Force News Service. U.S. Air Force. 13 November 2015.

Lange, Katie. “Art Therapy Helps Service Members Cope With Trauma.” DoDLive. 13 November 2015.

Moon, Diana. “Art Therapy May Provide Healing for Service Members.” Defense Centers of Excellence. 26 April 2013.

“NEA Healing Arts Partnership.” National Endowment for the Arts.