Using art therapy to support military personnel with PTSD

Published: 24 Aug 2016

Author: Janice Lobban
Using art therapy to support military personnel with PTSD

Janice Lobban, Senior Art Psychotherapist at the UK veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress, has recently returned from the USA, where she spent six weeks observing the effect of art therapy on veterans and serving military personnel with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Her travels were enabled by a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travelling Fellowship Award, in partnership with the Burdett Trust for Nursing.

Art therapy is able to access non-verbal parts of the brain, thereby providing a channel of expression for emotions and sensations that might be difficult to put into words. As not all veterans are able to engage in purely verbal therapies, art therapy provides an alternative way of working through traumatic experiences.

During her Fellowship, Janice, from Guildford in Surrey, visited US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) art therapy teams coast to coast, as well as serving military establishments, in order to gather evidence of the contribution of art therapy in this context. She also met clinical neuroscientists to discuss current research into PTSD and the part art therapy can play in recovery.

During one workshop, a veteran explained how art therapy has enabled him to express previously suppressed feelings and improve self-understanding. Another commented ‘I can’t talk about my emotions but I can draw them.’

“Clearly, art therapy is helping US veterans and serving personnel who are recovering from PTSD. It could prove invaluable to offer an equivalent service in the UK” –Janice Lobban

Currently, art therapy is not available within NHS Specialist Veteran Mental Health Services or for injured serving military personnel in the UK. Research suggests there are a growing number of veterans seeking help for psychological issues and this seems likely to continue1. In 2014/15 Combat Stress received 2,328 referrals which is a 26% increase on the previous financial year. Janice’s Fellowship has strengthened her conviction that now is the time to explore effective treatments for psychological wounds and for planning future service provision.

Since her return, Janice (pictured with art therapist Tien Gerrodette at the Menlo Park Division of VA Palo Alto Healthcare System, California) has been collating the data she gathered on her Fellowship in order to influence commissioners and policy makers, and build a case for the introduction of art therapy into NHS Specialist Veteran Mental Health Services and Defence Medical Services. She will write a report based on her findings which she will submit to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing  Inquiry, and disseminate her research further through a talk for the Royal Society of Public Health.

1. Murphy D., Weijers, B., Palmer, E., & Busuttil, W. (2015). Exploring Patterns in Referrals to Combat Stress for UK Veterans with Mental Health Difficulties between 1994 and 2014.  International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience, Vol. 17 (3) 652-658, ISSN 1522-4821

Notes to editors

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The Burdett Trust for Nursing

The aim of the partnership is to improve the health and well-being of patients, a key element of the Medicine, Health & Patient Care category. The Burdett Trust makes grants in support of nurse-led projects, using its funds to empower nurses and make significant improvements to the patient care environment.