With the lack of military hospitals, many veterans are turning to charities for help. One is using the unlikely weapon of art the help fight the psychological wounds of war, while another organisation is actively encouraging artwork in the army. Outside of the NHS, the charity Combat Stress is the biggest provider of support to armed forces veterans with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety. Art therapy is one of the treatments it uses. Drawing, sculpting and painting are helping patients manage their symptoms with great success. “Traumatic memories take a different path from our normal memories and tend to be frozen in the body in the central nervous system,” explains Janice Lobban, who has been a trauma therapist at Combat Stress for the past 10 years. “When a trauma happens, the person will react to get through the experience, but it leaves the trauma unprocessed. A person might then get a sensory memory like a sound, or sight, or smell, that is reminiscent of the trauma and they re-experience it happening again.” Sessions begin with a quick creative session to get thoughts and images down on paper. Art therapy, therefore, aims to help people express themselves unconsciously and process the meaning afterwards.
Group sessions typically begin with the therapist giving a one or two word brief to inspire creativity before veterans are given a selection of materials for painting, modelling or writing. After 45 minutes of quick work, the group then get together to talk about and describe what they’ve just created.
Veteran Richard Kidgell ex RAF with his finished artwork inspired by an art therapy session.
Although many of the veterans who try the therapy may never have had any interest in art before, there are some servicemen who actively pursue the craft and use it to reflect their experiences.
The Army Arts Society, set up by war artist Linda Kitson after the Falklands War, promotes and supports arts and crafts within the British Army - working with serving military, those who have retired and even their dependants. One of its latest initiatives is to provide operational art packs to troops - the first 20 of which went out to Afghanistan in September. “Art is a way of keeping some people sane,” says committee member Francesca Bex, herself a painter and the wife of a bomb disposal expert. “The packs can give soldiers an alternative. A lot of them watch awful films when they have down time and art can give some a different option.”
Painting gave Nick Hendry something to aim for after becoming injured during his service. Nick Hendry won the Serving War Artist of the Year award for his watercolour, Deliberation. Nick says art has been invaluable in giving him something to aim for again: “I was struggling trying to justify everything, but as soon as I get hold of a paintbrush it takes my mind off some really bad thoughts and focuses my mind on one thing.”
He fully supports the operational art pack initiative. During his time in the army, he says there was no outlet for art - unlike the more traditional pastimes of rugby or football.
Richard Kidgell agrees it’s a good idea to give soldiers the opportunity to process what they are experiencing on a tour of duty. Potentially, it can allow the military to spot the symptoms of PTSD early.
“But even for the minority who will grasp the idea, the benefits for catching those people at an early stage and giving them a chance to vent will be brilliant.” Text from www.bbc.co.uk