Art Battles Veteran Trauma

Veteran charity Combat Stress uses art to successfully treat post-combat disorders

Art therapy is being deployed by Combat Stress – the biggest provider of support to armed forces veterans outside the NHS – to treat ex-soldiers with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety.

Art activities such as drawing, sculpting and painting are said to help patients express and analyse themselves. As Richard Kidgell from Braintree, Essex, who served in the Royal Air Force from 1978 to 1985, explained: ‘I try to keep a blank mind and just let images and feelings rise out from my unconscious to my hand and things start appearing; ‘What surprises me is that while I’m drawing I don’t know what it is … but by the end of the session I’ve made a complete story. It’s quite enlightening …’

The treatment is delivered in group sessions in which veterans are given creative word prompts and the necessary materials to begin making art. At the end of the session, the group reconvenes and discusses their creations.

Using art to treat soldiers may seem unorthodox, but it may just turn out to be the perfect solution for post-combat conditions. As one one trauma therapist explained: ‘Traumatic memories take a different path from our normal memories and tend to be frozen in the body in the central nervous system’; ‘When a trauma happens, the person will react to get through the experience, but it leaves the trauma unprocessed’. Art seems to be helping ex-soldiers process this trauma and combat those occasions when ‘a sound, or sight, or smells…, reminiscent of the trauma’ makes them ‘re-experience it happening again’.

There is even an initiative to integrate art into regular army life, to pre-empt and detect PTSD early.  The Army Arts Society provides operational art packs to troops, with the first load having being sent out to Afghanistan in September. In the words of one spokesperson, ‘the benefits for catching those people [suffering from PTSD] at an early stage and giving them a chance to vent will be brilliant’. As committee member and bomb disposal expert Francesca Bex explained, ‘Art is a way of keeping some people sane’.

The Culture Show: Invisible Wounds is on BBC Two on Friday 11 November at 7pm

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