Creative arts therapy is helping heal service members’ invisible wounds of war

U.S. Army Spc. Tyler McGibbon was severely wounded in Kuwait in 2014 when his Humvee rolled and threw him 35-40 feet.

Doctors had to remove 3 percent of McGibbon’s brain and he woke up from a coma three months later.

As part of his recovery, McGibbon was referred to the healing arts program at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), which is part of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

The center’s four-week outpatient program incorporates music, art, creative writing, dance and movement into its sessions.

NICoE is here to treat the invisible wounds of war.

—Melissa Walker, Art Therapist at NICoE

For McGibbon, the program helped him rediscover himself.  “It has been helping me connect myself, my inner self too,” McGibbon said. He added that the program helped him realize, “This is not the end. This is a new beginning.”

Since 2000, more than 360,000 service members have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries, according to the Department of Defense.

When service members return home, they often have a difficult time verbalizing what they’ve been through. This isn’t just because of the psychological effects of war, but also the physiological change in the brain, Walker explained.

The speech-language area of the brain, or the Broca area, often shuts down after experiencing trauma and, according to Walker, creating art helps service members take control of those memories.

During their first art therapy session with Walker, service members receive a blank mask and are asked to focus less on the final product and more on what they want to symbolize about themselves.

“Once they create and they take control of their memories and they’re able to externalize those, they can often begin to discuss it by looking at the artwork and explaining what they’re meaning to symbolize, with the therapist,” Walker said.

Talking to service members about their artwork gives the treatment team another look at what’s going on with the patient, she added.

McGibbon’s first mask, like many others hanging throughout the center, explored his identity both before and after his injuries. The first mask had a loading bar because McGibbon said he was still searching for himself.

His second mask is all about discovering the new Tyler and shows a missing puzzle piece finally falling into place.

“I feel finally whole again and I finally know what my route is, how I’m getting there and who I am becoming,” McGibbon said. “I don’t feel lost.”

Walker said the service members coming through the program are all going through some kind of transitional phase in their lives, so art — whether it’s music, writing or dance — helps them explore their identity.

During the last six years, service members have created more than 1,400 masks, some of which are hanging in the center. Walker said those masks often help service members coming through the program realize that those who’ve come before them had similar experiences.

Dance therapy

As part of the NICoE’s treatment program, service members also learn different mind-body techniques.

Allison Winters, the wellness coordinator at the NICoE, said during the program she focuses on helping service members find a balance between the two sides of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for activating the body’s fight-or-flight response, whereas the parasympathetic is the body’s relaxation response.

Many of the service members Winters works with are sort of cycling in the sympathetic response and may need support to figure out how to engage that parasympathetic response again.

“A lot of these practices that they learn through the breathing, through movement, through music, through art making, is about starting to find a balance between those two places,” Winters explained. “You know, we don’t want to be stuck in the on position… so it’s about learning how to find that balance and navigate between both sides of the nervous system.”

During the program, service members learn how to find this balance through yoga, dance and walking meditations.

Winters said the program allows service members to explore what works best for them while allowing “them to express things that maybe have been difficult for them to express verbally using all these nonverbal modalities.”

McGibbon said during the program, there was never a time when he felt like failure was a possibility.

“I have always had the mindset of, ‘When you come across something that’s hard, and you can’t complete it, don’t quit.’ Even if you’re going to try again and fail, keep trying until you succeed.”

The healing arts program

Service members are referred to the center by their primary care providers at their respective bases or commands, according to Miki Gilloon, the public affairs specialist at the NICoE.

The program is funded by the Department of Defense as well as the National Endowment for the Arts’ Creative Forces network. Under President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, the NEA’s $148 million budget would be eliminated.

“We are disappointed because we see our funding actively making a difference with individuals of all ages in thousands of communities, large, small, urban and rural, and in every Congressional District in the nation,” NEA Chairman Jane Chu said in a statement on March 16, responding to the proposed budget for 2018.

The NEA’s statement added that it will continue to operate as usual until an new budget is enacted by Congress.

View the full story and video on Circa’s website.


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