Perhaps the most widely used phrase to describe the nature of war is the three words first coined by Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman: War Is Hell. Following a summer long engagement, which saw a combined 8,000 Americans killed and an additional 50,000 wounded, Sherman, laid siege to the City of Atlanta. The Atlanta Campaign culminated in the Union Army burning all government, military buildings as well as numerous private residences to the ground. Explaining his decision to the mayor and city council of Atlanta, Sherman popularized the axiom, before further stating “you cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.” The toll war takes on its participants is seemingly unquantifiable, beyond the physical damage are the mental scars of combat experience. A wounded soul is no less debilitating than the after effects of an IED explosion.
Per Face the Facts USA, 20 percent of all veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; a figure that equates to approximately 300,000 former soldiers suffering from PTSD. Many estimates have put the number of veterans with PTSD as much higher than what is reported. Military spouses surveyed in 2012 by the Washington Times put the number of those with undiagnosed PTST at 60 percent. Gary Wynn, a researcher at the Walter Reed Army Institute echoed those projections by recently hypothesizing the number to be closer to 60 than 20 percent. Correlating with the PTSD rate is the astronomical number of Iraq and Afghanistan committing suicide daily. On average, one veteran carries out a suicide per day.
The national rates among veterans of unemployment, and homelessness force the impact as well as the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress to be reexamined. PTSD is characterized by intense anxiety, avoiding situations that may trigger symptoms, relieving trauma, and feeling hopeless about overcoming the disorder. The relationship between PTSD and depression is well documented. Considered a gateway to alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide, PTSD is brought on by experiencing intensely traumatic events, such as military combat. Currently, the DOD estimates that American health care costs accompanying treatment for veterans are greater than $2 billion annually. The cost per veteran is roughly $8,500 yearly. Compounding the problem is the relatively low rates of successful treatment. According to the Department of Defense only fifty percent of those seeking treatment overcome the disorder. A number well under the departments stated goal of 90 percent.
A new form of treatment has been ascending in terms of popularity as of late. Art Therapy has proven beneficial to individuals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although little is documented thus far on its usage with American military veterans. Known as aiding communication between patient and clinician, qualitative research has indicated that art therapy helps an individual take their mind off of the initial trauma, express their feelings, and improve their social skills. A group of 2004 Sri Lankan tsunami survivors were documented by the Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association reported high rates of reduced symptoms in conjunction with art therapy treatments. Similarly, the same publication highlighted research carried out by a children’s psych center in the Bronx, which demonstrated lessened symptoms in teenagers exposed to arts and crafts in a clinical setting.
Cheryl Miller of the department of Creative Arts and Therapies at Concordia University recent research may serve as the catalyst to the wide spread implementation of art therapy practices among American veterans with PTSD. Miller, working with Canadian combat vets aged 28 to 56, all of whom were suffering from anxiety, depression, insomnia and thoughts of suicide, were studied over the course of several art therapy sessions. Usage of collage materials, paint, clay, markers and charcoal brought about the widespread reporting among the group of reduced symptoms, positive feelings, empathetic catharsis, and the ability to externalize emotions. Of her work, Miller says “Art therapy is considered a mind-body intervention that can influence physiological and psychological symptoms. The experience of expressing oneself creatively can reawaken positive emotions and address symptoms of emotional numbing in individuals with PTSD.”
Although art therapy is not offered extensively to veterans by the VA, a glimmer of hope came in 2013, when the Kansas City VA Medical Center started offering art therapy sessions. It is still far too early to declare art therapy as a Post Traumatic Stress cure all, but enough material is available for it to be considered as a viable treatment option.