Different patients have different needs. “It really matters how long they’re seen in our clinic and what their goals for treatment and recovery are,” Jones says.
For example, a service member who is having angry outbursts in public might enter the clinic looking to gain emotional regulation. “He knows that that’s a behavior he wants to stop but he doesn’t know how,” Jones explains. “Through art therapy we can do things to work towards that goal, such as figuring out what someone’s particular triggers are or really uncovering what is underlying the anger.” Once the patient is able to identify those triggers, they’re better prepared to process whatever is inciting the anger and to recognize in the moment that they’re experiencing that trigger. “They can emotionally regulate and calm themselves down before having a reaction that they don’t want to have,” she explains.
Other patients with symptoms of post-traumatic stress might be looking to lessen nightmares and improve their quality of sleep. “In that case we may be using art to process specific traumatic events to a place where they come to resolution,” Jones says, “so that they may move to a place where they might dream about those things, but it becomes more like they’re watching a movie instead of actively being in the middle of the event occurring over and over.”
Communication is a common treatment goal, especially in regard to communicating with family members. “A lot of the art they create is a really good externalization of what they’re going through and it helps them gain insight into what’s really underlying their issues, symptoms, and behaviors and so it first and foremost gives them great insight into self.”
Jones recalls helping a specific patient at Fort Belvoir work through a traumatic event and the associated negative emotions. “At a certain point he just looked up at me and he said, ‘I like myself now,” Jones recalls.
While many patients who meet their treatment goals stop engaging in art therapy, some continue on an ongoing basis. “Artmaking is their primary method of processing things that happened in the past but also processing the present,” Jones explains. “It’s their way of maintaining well-being.”
Jones also collects data from her patients in order to determine how valuable art therapy is to them. “What has come back so far is that the majority of patients attribute or credit art therapy with increasing their ability to experience positive emotions and their self-concept,” she attests.
Recently, Creative Forces has begun to organize summits that bring together creative arts therapists, researchers, and military personnel to discuss and assess this research, and to determine what future studies should address.