The Peninsula Fine Arts Center is on a mission to use art to heal our heroes. They’re asking for your help.
Their Summer Healing Arts Program is now in it’s fifth year. They hope to raise $5K in combination with a privately funded matching grant in order to continue working with veterans through Art Therapy.
In service of the cause, they’ve launched a Crowdrise fundraising site, but time is short. They’ve got till May 31st to meet the goal. Now is the moment to act.
Editor’s note: This post is part of a promotional collaboration with PFAC.
According to a recent and extensive study by the the US Department of Veterans Affairs, if you serve in the military? You’re twice as at risk for suicide as a civilian.
Up to 20% of deployed military personnel suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder in a given year. Returning veterans afflicted by these kinds of trauma face serious challenges when reintegrating into their neighborhoods, homes, and families. Chronic depression. The pitfalls of self medication. Sleep disorders. An inability to hold down a job. Anxiety.
Worse? Since many vets view mental illness, therapy, and medication as stigmas in-and-of-themselves, some avoid treatment altogether. That lack of assistance can and often does lead to tragedy.
PFAC’s program takes place over four week sessions that run from June to August under the auspices of the Hampton Veterans Affairs Hospital. Each session is led by a qualified PFAC Art Therapist. You may find yourself wondering what exactly Art Therapy is. Don’t feel bad, it’s a relatively young discipline. The American Art Therapy Association puts forth this definition: “Art therapy is a mental health profession that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals.”
The term itself was coined as early as 1942 by British artist Adrian Hill. He turned to attempts to harness the healing power of creative energy while attempting to aid patients of sanatoriums and developed many of its base precepts with the publication of his groundbreaking work, Art Versus Illness. As a formal profession Art Therapy really didn’t take root until the last quarter of the 20th Century.
Meghan Bernier is an art therapist who helped initiate the program with PFAC in 2011 and stayed on until just last year to guide it.
“Courtney Gardner, the Executive Director of PFAC, came to me and said, ‘Look. We have this funding from an outside source. I’m looking for a project manager interested in giving back to the community. What can we do with this?’ And I told her that there was.. My husband is a veteran.. That there’s a dire need to get veterans some help.”
“She said, ‘Okay. How can we make this happen? And together we created this program. I wrote a complete Art Therapy plan. We started giving people demonstrations to show what this is capable of doing, and that brought us to Fort Eustis and their transition unit. It brought us to the VA with a diverse group of patients where I could provide Art Therapy services based on my degree.”
“The way Art Therapy works is that we help lead people, based on what their need is. Meeting them where they’re at and then helping them get to where they need to go. And these services, because we’re a relatively young profession, aren’t something that are not typically available to military members because it very often isn’t covered by insurance.”
When asked to define Art Therapy, Bernier responded:
“There’s just not an easy way to say it. It’s.. Flexible. It can be any kind of creative process that allows a patient an alternative to using words to express themselves. It can be dance. It can be painting. It can be music. Whatever. With talk therapy a patient can say the same thing to three or four different people, and the perceived meaning of that shifts depending on who hears it. Other types of trauma actually shut down the speech centers of the brain and the veteran is physically unable to use words to express their pain. Art Therapy gives them a way to do so, without triggering flashbacks or PTSD attacks.”
I wanted to, as part of my research, gather some examples of vets who have come into contact with this kind of work and get their take on it – but healthcare privacy laws make that difficult. So instead I put the word out to the community of veterans I know personally to see if any would be interested in discussing their experience with art based therapies.
Retired Navy Combat Veteran, Jose Roman, served throughout Afghanistan and Iraq as a Sea Bee during the Global War on Terror. If you’re not familiar with the term, Sea Bees are a kind of.. Fighting engineer. They go in and build things for combat operations. Forts. Defensible buildings. They act as both combat troops when necessary as well as auxiliary support. In the Navy for twenty-two years off and on active duty, Roman volunteered back into for service shortly after September 11th. In the course of his tour he regularly came under fire, stationed at a hub of an operation working with surrounding villages to win hearts and minds.
“Yeah, we got shot at, literally every three or four days. Bullets. IEDs. Mortars. There were about a dozen of us Navy guys plus some Army personnel, isolated, doing our thing. And sometimes people died. I came back from my last deployment in 2012, retired 2013. And coming back, the transition was tough. It was bad I was diagnosed with PTSD before I came back, and I blew it off. And then I was diagnosed while in a reserve unit, and I blew it off. You get back.. You know..? You don’t think of yourself as a **veteran.** Veterans are guys from Vietnam.. WWII. I had hyper-vigilance. Sleep issues. Anxiety. A whole cocktail of issues. I had guilt.. You know, for leaving? And you think to yourself.. Well.. This is just what it is. There’s guys got it worse than me. I’m lucky.”
Eventually, during a reservist operation, he found himself confronted by superiors who were blunt.
“It’s.. I was at the command on reserve duty, and they put me in a room. Two guys walk in and close the door. They say ‘Hey. You need to go see the man. You’ve checked some boxes for some of these things.'”
“It’s when you start talking to other vets. And you realize, oh.. This is a thing we go through. This is real. You’re having trouble sleeping. You’re depressed, but you don’t want people looking at you like.. Well.. You know? But I know guys who got it really bad. People start drinking. Popping pills. A few killed themselves.”
“In starting to talk to other vets, I began getting really interested in working with outreach programs. We started a writing circle. Just vets. And it helps. We’ve got a 94 year old guy, he was at Iwo Jima, Saipan plus two other beach landings. All through the Pacific in the forties. Stuff that happened seventy years ago, and by the end of it he’s bawling. Just getting all this garbage out of him.”
“Some guys look at this kind of stuff. And they’re like. I want nothing to do with that. It’s flakey. Right? But my thing.. Look. Whatever helps to get this stuff out of your head and someplace where you can look at it? Where you can see it in the open and actually deal with it? Why the hell wouldn’t you want to do that? If it works. I’m all for it.”
The publicly stated mission of the Peninsula Fine Arts Center is to “provide a balanced and stimulating exhibition program, be a resource for local artists, foster education for students of all ages, and to serve as a social hub in order to build a stronger community through art.”
With the Summer Healing Arts Program, they’re fulfilling that last piece of the mission. Our veterans, the men and women who have given their bodies, hearts, and minds in a full measure of devotion? They deserve the very best care available. Our society is only strengthened when people devoted to the concept of service return to the ranks of civilian life. It’s in our best interests to do everything possible to support that re-integration.
For those of us who live and breathe art on a daily basis, the idea that creative expression carries healing power is taken for granted. For many of us, it’s the reason we first picked up a brush. Or started writing poetry. Or engaged with the world of theater or music. It’s easy for us to forget that art’s world isn’t necessarily seen as accessible by outsiders. PFAC is leading the charge here towards knocking down barriers and opening avenues that flow both ways.
They need your help. Click here to go to their Crowdrise page. Kick in what you can. They deserve it. Our veterans deserve it.
They’ve done their bit to try and make the world a better place. Now it’s our turn.