When Creative Arts Therapist Melissa Walker presents her patients with blank, papier-mâché masks to decorate, she is most often met with a skeptical reaction. This isn’t surprising, considering that her patients are active-duty service members who suffer from mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) as a result of exposure to blast-force events. These injuries are strikingly common, having afflicted hundreds of thousands of US combat personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan; symptoms include seizures, sleep disorders and cognitive difficulties.
Yet, Melissa’s unconventional approach is a remarkably effective component of a four-week treatment program at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (a program of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center), where she works. The process of making masks gives service members a “visual voice” that allows them to symbolize what’s going on internally. Often, the masks they create help tell their stories more eloquently than words ever could – and that’s only part of what makes them so powerful. By helping reveal and articulate hidden trauma, the masks offer a road to self-healing that the artists say is among the most helpful parts of their treatment.
The mask-making program has proven a “low-cost, non-invasive and very effective treatment” for these military service members with “invisible wounds,” Melissa reports. Unfortunately, it’s also “a treatment they don’t believe they will be able to continue at or near their home bases, because of the scarcity of creative arts therapists across the military health system.” She’s hoping that Congress will allow President Obama’s request for $1.9 million in funding to expand the program to more bases to remain in the 2016 budget.
Melissa first observed the power of the art as a symbolic vehicle for communication when, in college, she worked with a special needs child. Watching him “create,” she shares that she “knew there was much more to observe about the process than the surface value of this child’s art product.” She recalls, “I watched his mind work in a unique way as he drew a city scene and spoke softly to himself about the buildings going ‘up, up, up.’ It was in that moment that I knew I wanted to work more closely with individuals than the classroom setting would allow, and began to research how to become an art therapist.”
Melissa views mental health as a “complicated challenge.” “I have learned throughout my life and career that the line between psychological health and mental illness is a fine one,” she says, noting her belief that “the majority of our population lacks the understanding of how an individual comes to suffer psychologically, and lacks the empathy necessary to take the time to understand. Unfortunately this has created a culture of stigma that prohibits those who are in need to seek help. I am trying to break through these barriers… to help those suffering to express themselves, and to help others begin to understand their pain.”
Melissa relies on a mantra – “be present” – to help her stay focused on what matters most. “I often take a deep breath on my way into work and tell myself to be present for my patients. The greatest therapeutic outcomes I have experienced were as a result of my (and my patients’) ability to be present in the process and the artistic space. This has become more and more of a challenge as my career evolves and expands into advocacy, outreach, and research realms. But during the moments I am able to remind myself of my reason for being here – when I am fully engaged and invested in healing others – I am most alive in my work, and my patients are most active in their recovery.”