PTSD Awareness Month places extra focus on creative arts therapy

Posted On: Wednesday, 05 June 2024
artwork from veteran

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs employees work with veterans throughout the year in creative arts therapy to help them navigate through trauma associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Through this therapy, veterans have the chance to enter the local Veterans Creative Arts Festival through their VA, another opportunity to explore the arts for healing. 
Allison “Ali” DeCamillis, a creative arts therapist with the Minneapolis VA since September 2022, shares insight into the power of healing through the arts. 
With PTSD Awareness Month in June, can you discuss treating PTSD using the arts?
Often, individuals living with the impact of PTSD have symptoms that prevent them from living fully and their world has gotten smaller, more isolated, and their quality of life diminished. They are often living in survival mode, and their nervous systems are on high alert. Their body and mind are operating as though the traumas they experienced are still active. For some, they experience nightmares, flashbacks, sensory sensitivity, social isolation, and physical, emotional, and/or somatic pain. Some individuals might experience irritability, anger, or feeling emotionally shut down. All of these can deeply impact relationships, a person’s sense of self, and quality of life.
For some of my outpatients, I utilize a specific art-based trauma protocol called Instinctual Trauma Response to help support the processing of traumatic experiences. With my inpatients, I use more traditional art therapy interventions and mediums such as mask making, printmaking, drawing, painting, and sculpture with the goal of decreasing the stress response, creating opportunities for self-reflection, self-awareness, and greater insight.

In what ways can the arts help veterans?
The arts are inherently therapeutic and can be life enhancing. By engaging in a creative activity — therapeutic or recreational — one can connect with a sense of meaning and purpose. Creative engagement in the arts can stimulate feelings of active engagement in life. The root of “creativity” is “to create,” which is an act of making something from nothing. 
What do you personally like about working with veterans in the creative arts? 
For me personally, working with veterans and active-duty military feels a bit full circle. I grew up as an Army brat. Being at the VA feels familiar in some ways to the culture I grew up in. My favorite folks to work with — both veteran and active duty — are the ones who come into the studio and are skeptical and resistant to the idea of art therapy. They question what art therapy is and how it can help. But within a few sessions, I see creativity spark something within them that was dormant. 
What do you think are misconceptions about art therapy?
Art therapy is therapy. I think a common misconception is that art therapists are people who “do crafts for distraction” and art therapy is about “making pretty art,” but actually what happens within the studio space and therapeutic relationship is profound and transformative. Art therapists are master’s [degree]-level or higher trained clinicians who often hold clinical specializations, in addition to board certification and mental health licensing. Art therapists are as diverse as the people they work with and the settings they work within. Art therapy is not just for children, but people across the age spectrum. 
What do you want people who have never experienced art therapy to know? 
When working with active-duty military and veterans, the first thing I say is, “You don’t have to be an artist. You don’t have to be able to draw straight lines, and stick figures are welcome. You don’t even have to like art to benefit from art therapy. And in this studio space, you will not be judged, criticized, or graded.” 
Do you have any personal examples of art therapy helping a veteran with PTSD?
There are so many servicemembers and veterans who come to mind. One Army medic I worked with spent time working on a mask that depicted the armor he had to put on in order to do his job. The outside of his mask was bloodied, rigid, and guarded. That metaphoric mask served him in the role he played as a special forces operator and medic. It allowed him to survive amidst combat and live with the loss that comes from it. However, he was struggling to take off the armor in his day to day, to relax, and connect with loved ones. On the inside of the mask, he wanted to depict the serenity he experiences when at the beach. However, the exterior kept creeping into the interior of the mask and “took over.” This insight allowed him greater understanding of how his PTSD, as well as the grief and loss, impacted his day-to-day. He decided to engage in a burn ceremony in which he burned his mask as a symbolic way to let go of that chapter in life as he transitioned from active duty to retirement as a veteran.
The Veterans Creative Arts Festival at the local and national levels is so important to our veterans to give them a creative outlet. Can you talk more about how it’s life-changing at the local level? 
For many veterans, engaging in the local Veterans Creative Arts Festivals creates an opportunity to be a part of something bigger than oneself — to be a part of a community and feel a sense of belonging. It allows space for one’s personal expression to be seen amongst a community of veterans. One thing I hear veterans say is that they feel understood by other veterans. Doing art, as well as viewing art, offers benefits such as personal expression but then also increased awareness, understanding, and empathy. 

ALA Mission

In the spirit of Service, Not Self, the mission of the American Legion Auxiliary is to support The American Legion and to honor the sacrifice of those who serve by enhancing the lives of our veterans, military, and their families, both at home and abroad. For God and Country, we advocate for veterans, educate our citizens, mentor youth, and promote patriotism, good citizenship, peace and security.