The revealing power of creative disguise

This guest blog post is by TEDMED 2015 speaker Melissa Walker, a Creative Arts Therapist at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence.

This past month, I returned from a work excursion to Washington State and Alaska full of excitement and hope. My personal travels have never taken me to the Pacific Northwest or the Last Frontier, so the incredibly beautiful backdrop of cities such as Seattle and Tacoma, WA, and Anchorage and Seward, AK, was the cherry on top of our goal to spread the treatment we are most passionate about across the nation.

Melissa Walker, photographed at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence with masks that are part of her art therapy program with the military. melissa.s.walker12.civ@mail.mil PR Contact: Mary El Pearce Public Affairs Liaison, National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) Associate, Booz Allen Hamilton NICoE Public Affairs Line: 301-319-3619 Booz Allen Office: 202-354-9412 Mobile: 404-285-5005 pearce_maryel@bah.com
Melissa Walker, photographed at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence with masks that are part of her art therapy program with the military. Photo credit: Rebecca Hale, National Geographic

Our team, composed of Department of Defense (DoD) and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) staff, visited military traumatic brain injury (TBI) outpatient clinics to discuss the integration of the creative arts therapies into their treatment models. We also met with state and local arts agencies, community arts organizations, and local artists to encourage arts involvement of active duty military service members and veterans outside of, and alongside, the clinical setting.

Prior to these visits, the team also traveled to TBI clinics on military bases in North Carolina and California with the mission to expand, replicate, and support access to creative arts therapies treatment within the DoD. All were met with enthusiasm and a desire to offer treatments such as art therapy, music therapy, dance therapy, and drama therapy to our recovering military service members.

Though creative art therapists have been employed by the DoD and the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for many years, it wasn’t until very recently, after two Federal Agencies–the NEA and the DoD–united in what should be considered a role model Partnership, that the creative arts therapies were elevated to a nationally accepted level as a core integrative treatment for military service members diagnosed with the signature, invisible wounds of our most recent wars, TBI and underlying psychological health concerns to include post-traumatic stress (PTS).

This all began in 2011 when the NEA partnered with the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, MD, to adapt their Operation Homecoming creative writing initiative to the military healthcare setting.   The NEA offered to integrate creative and therapeutic writing into the existing Healing Arts Program, which was then composed solely of art therapy.  The integration of creative and therapeutic writing into the Healing Arts Program at the NICoE was a success.  Patient response to the writing, as well as a two-year survey ranking art therapy in the top five treatments of over forty that the service members found to be beneficial to their recovery, prompted the Partnership to begin exploring ways to expand creative arts therapies offerings.  A music therapy program began at NICoE in 2013 and shortly after, an art therapist was embedded at the NICoE Intrepid Spirit in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia – one of nine planned NICoE satellite centers.

There, positive patient and staff feedback led to the transition of that art therapist from contractor to a permanent DoD civilian and then the position was back-filled with a music therapist. The majority of service members treated at NICoE are stationed in Virginia Beach, so shortly after an art therapist was hired via the Partnership and embedded in the community there. It was crucial that service members responding to art therapy at the NICoE have follow-on care back at their home base. And at NICoE, creative arts therapies offerings continued to expand when the NICoE hired a Wellness Coordinator who is also a dance/movement therapist, and the NEA brought in an additional art therapist so that I could dedicate more of my time to outreach and research efforts.

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A mask created by an active duty member as part of Melissa’s Healing Arts Program.

Fortunately, Capitol Hill has responded very positively to the Partnership’s impact, and this year an increase of 1.9 million dollars in NEA funding was implemented for the replication and expansion of the NEA Military Healing Arts Network within not only key active duty military treatment facilities across the nation such as the ones I mentioned earlier, but also within the VA and community settings. As service members transition from active duty to becoming veterans and members of society, it is important that we ensure access to the arts so that they can serve as a therapeutic outlet across the continuum.  We would also like to bridge the divide between clinical and community arts settings, ensuring warm hand-offs as service members transition from active duty to retirement.

The goal of nine additional, for a total of twelve, clinical settings to the Partnership within the DoD and VA has been set for integration this year alone. Each of these settings will be connected to promising community arts programs. This means access to the arts as a form of healing and resilience for over 10,000 service members and veterans within our healthcare system and community, per year.

I, for one, cannot wait to see the amazing outcomes I have witnessed within the Healing Arts Program at the NICoE spill out and touch every service member and veteran possible over the next five, ten, twenty years… across ALL states. In the words of a former NICoE Director who has chosen to work for the Partnership post-retirement: “The creative arts therapies are no longer a nice to have, they are a NEED to have.” And this expansion is making that possible.


Portrait_MElissaWalkerCreative arts therapist Melissa Walker describes how she creates a haven where military service members recovering from traumatic brain injury and mental illness can safely unmask their invisible wounds.