Number 14 in our countdown of '70 Ways Art Improves Our Health' explores the history of art healing veterans’ hidden wounds…

Thousands of servicemen in the First World War returned with severe mental health problems. Many suffered from shell shock, a term used at the time to describe a variety of symptoms, from tremors and tics to the inability to sleep, talk or walk.

At the end of the war, 80,000 veterans had been treated for shell shock. (Though modern estimates suggest the real number could have been as high as 325,000.) Regardless, the veterans suffering from what we now know as a type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were given little compassion and were often accused of ‘lacking moral fibre’ – a euphemism for cowardice.

…invisible injuries can be just as hard to cope with as physical ones.

Combat Stress

In the wake of this, innovative charities like Combat Stress sprang up. The charity’s founders believed that veterans could be helped to cope with their mental health problems through rehabilitation and, in 1919, began offering occupational therapy through activities like basket weaving.

Thanks to charities like Combat Stress and pioneering hospitals such as Craiglockhart, our understanding and our attitudes towards veterans’ mental health changed over time.

Although nowhere near the scale of the post-war period, mental health is still a major problem for servicemembers and veterans. According to Ministry of Defence figures, the number of servicemembers with mental health problems has risen by 72% in the last ten years. These problems include anxiety, depression and PTSD.

Photograph from 1917. The soldier in the lower left has a thousand-yard stare - a common symptom of 'shell shock'.

We already know that art is proven to relieve anxiety and depression. And among the many various treatments for PTSD, art therapy ranked among the top five most helpful in a recent survey. Arts therapies for the treatment of PTSD can include music, visual arts, literary arts, dance, and more. As previously explored in our countdown, these creative forms of communication offer an easier way to express traumatic experiences than talking.

Last year an article published in the International Journal of Art Therapy reported new evidence of the benefits of art therapy on servicemembers with PTSD:

“The art therapy journey serves as an agent of change, during which servicemembers establish a new sense of self as creator rather than destroyer, as productive and efficacious instead of broken, as connected to others as opposed to isolated…”

An art therapy session at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, US, 2014.

The challenges facing service members, veterans, and their families today are ‘more than the traditional medical model can solve’, as stated by the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military. Unfortunately, if untreated, sufferers of conditions like PTSD are also more prone to drug and alcohol abuse.

Luckily, if caught early enough, arts therapies can offer servicemembers and veterans a chance to escape their past and focus on their future.

  • Related events: The Armed Forces Art Society’s 84th Annual Exhibition is currently at the Menier Gallery until 23 June.

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