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Guest column: Arts help veterans heal

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Military leaders say we need every weapon in our arsenal to meet the many challenges we face today. How­ever, did you know that one of the most powerful tools we have is often under-used and not well understood within the military and the veterans’ health care system — and even in our communities as well?

More and more the arts — music, dance, visual arts, poetry, writing, drama, storytelling, filmmaking and media — are making a difference and improving the lives of our wounded, ill and injured service members, veterans, and their families. The arts are also helping others find new meaning and purpose — as well as employment — as they return home to our communities.

Consider the stakes: While only about 1 percent of the American population (3 million) currently serves in the military, there remain more than 22 million veterans throughout the country with the largest percent­age from the Vietnam generation. From our current conflicts, about 1.5 million have already returned with more coming home as the draw-down continues. One out of 50 of those returning has sustained a physical combat injury. Ninety percent of today’s service members are surviving their injuries, from loss of sometimes multiple limbs to the invisible wounds of traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and military sexual trauma.

These injuries are not only life-changing for the individual, but mili­tary families, children and caregivers are living with the consequences of these sobering statistics: one in five returning service members suffers from PTSD, TBI or depression. And the reality today is that the number of service members who commit suicide currently outnumbers those killed in actual combat.

These are challenges where we, as a society, have a collective duty to step up and do our part. All across the country there are concrete ways the arts and humanities are doing just that.

Research shows that the arts play a role in helping the military sustain and promote troop force and family readiness, resilience, retention, and for veterans, the successful reintegra­tion into family and community life. Service members and veterans with opportunities to express themselves and share their stories are better able to cope with PTSD, TBI and depression. Evidence shows that individuals engaging in expressive arts therapies sleep better, have lessened depression and anxiety, and improved impulse control and concentration — qualities necessary for successful reintegration into the community and workforce.

We know that about half of ser­vice members or veterans who need treatment for mental health condi­tions hesitate to seek it, fearing that the stigma associated with mental health issues or receiving treatment might jeopardize their careers, especially for those concerned with obtaining or maintaining a security clearance.

The arts can address one of the reasons a service member or veteran might avoid seeking treatment, since when using the arts, individuals can experience or express their thoughts and feelings without necessarily hav­ing to talk about or directly confront the trauma, if they are not ready. One of the most difficult experiences is the transition from military to civil­ian life. Approximately 14 percent of service members returning from Iraq or Afghanistan meet criteria for depression. Left untreated, depres­sion can increase the chance of risky behaviors, damage relationships, create problems on the job, make it difficult to overcome serious illnesses or even lead to suicide.

Partnerships between the arts and the Department of Veterans Affairs and veterans service organizations are demonstrating how effective the arts can be in meeting local challenges.

Family & Community Ser­vices, Inc. (FCS) uses expressive arts therapy in northeast Ohio to combat veteran homelessness. Veterans participate in a 12-week homeless recovery program receiving creative writing, drama, music and art therapy to help them in their process of reintegrating into the community, obtaining income, and obtaining and maintaining permanent housing.

In 2013, Dare County Arts Coun­cil (DCAC) in North Carolina began a series of artistic programs for vet­erans in collaboration with the Dare County Veterans Advisory Council, the Outer Banks Visitor’s Bureau and the Outer Banks Community Foundation. DCAC partners with Ron Capps of the Veterans Writing Project in Washington, D.C. and pro­vides public events for veterans and families featuring Joseph Bathanti, North Carolina’s poet laureate, and other Outer Banks writers. The vet­erans writing workshop will expand this year to include more visual and performing arts opportunities.

Resounding Joy (RJoy) is a nonprofit organization based in San Diego, Calif. that uses therapeutic and recreational music programs to improve social, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being of individu­als and communities. In 2010, RJoy launched the Semper Sound Military Music Therapy program (including the Semper Sound Band), which provided more than 5,000 active service members, veterans and their families tools to cope with illness, injury or other challenges.

Americans for the Arts through the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military serves as an official site of the American Legion Aux­iliary (ALA) Call to Service Corps. Together with the ALA, we have been engaged in an effort to identify and map projects and organizations serving military service members, veterans and their families, collecting them in an online national directory. New entries can be made online and we encourage all to help us build this resource. To learn more about how you can become involved, visit www. ArtsAcrosstheMilitary.org.

Please join us at the NACo An­nual Conference at the Veterans Affairs Committee to learn more about this topic, or contact Jay Dick at jay@artsusa.org.

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