How Art Therapy Helps Heal Male Veterans
To celebrate Military Appreciation Month, we talked with Lindsay Lederman, MPS, ATR-BC, LCAT, ATCS, Clinical Director of The Art Therapy Project, who works with two male veteran groups here at our studios.
1). What is unique about the male vet groups?
There is a shared focus of having served in the military. There is something really powerful about their experiences. In the military, there was a camaraderie to have each other’s backs, be there for each other – a ‘no man left behind’ mentality. Then, they come back into civilian life and that community isn’t there for them anymore. The group becomes a new environment for veterans to reestablish that camaraderie, but, in this case, the camaraderie is based on their health and needs. They learn new ways to address emotions that are supported by the group process.
2). How is art realized as a tool for communication?
One group member wanted to do a group art piece. People were pretty hesitant about it at first, because creating art on a group level can be quite intimate. Trust needs to be built between each person and you have to honor one another’s work – people need to feel safe in order to express themselves in this way. So we talked about that and it led to a discussion about how a group art piece is a metaphor for how we connect with others. There is a back and forth that happens in the art process that is very similar to getting to know someone. So, the group decided that instead of immediately jumping into the creation of one big group piece, they would work individually on their own piece at their own pace, which would then be contributed to a larger group project. They recognized this action as a metaphor for how we connect on an interpersonal level with people in real life. They realized that art can lend itself to more than what conversation actually addresses.
3). What do group art therapy sessions offer unlike other forms of therapy?
Art therapy provides a protective layer. It is like having an “other” in the room, which allows clients to focus on something in addition to just the verbal processing of emotional issues. It provides a safety net to express themselves through a metaphor and the art process that is unlike group talk therapy sessions. Veterans want to be in a place that feels safe, can reduce stress and anxiety, and connect with people who have shared a similar experience. Art therapy provides a sanctuary for them to explore issues creatively while also receiving support and guidance from their peers.
4). What are some of the themes you see in their work?
The most common themes are about loss, relationships and connections. Within each theme, different emotions are identified and processed, such as guilt, sadness and shame. The questions that get addressed might be: How do I negotiate these feelings? How do I tolerate emotions? How do I integrate my experiences and feel safe in the world?The issue of identity is another big theme in the work with veterans. Having the experience of camaraderie and then leaving the service and reentering civilian life is difficult. Questions that come up are: What am I good at? Where do I belong? I have no orders, I have no group, where do I see myself now?
5). What is the level of previous art-making experience?
Some of our group members identify as artists and some have never made art in their life. The role of the art therapist is supporting all of them and understanding that the purpose of the group is about the creative process and how art-making addresses their needs and issues.
6). What is most important about group art therapy for vets?
Group art therapy allows veterans to create a new community. Many do not have a lot of support outside of The Art Therapy Project. The group session is often a respite and a way to reset. They take whatever processing, connection or creativity that was done in session and stretch them to carry over into their outside lives. The most important aspect of group art therapy sessions is that they feel committed to one another - they feel accountable to their peers – which motivates them to come back every week.