Federal Faces: Melissa Walker

July 1, 2013

Melissa Walker

Position: Creative arts therapist/Healing Arts Program coordinator, National Intrepid Center of Excellence, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center

Best known for: Walker is helping heal the invisible wounds of service members from Iraq and Afghanistan. A creative arts therapist, she developed and implemented the Healing Arts Program at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence in Bethesda, a facility for ­active-duty service members facing combat and mission-related traumatic brain injuries and underlying psychological health conditions.

According to the Defense Department, more than 266,000 military members suffered from traumatic brain injuries from 2000 to 2012. As part of an intensive four-week program, service members receive rehabilitative care that integrates art therapy, music therapy and therapeutic writing. The interdisciplinary model is meant to help assess and treat psychological health and cognitive concerns and introduce art as a tool for relaxation.

The program includes individual sessions and group therapy, meant to help create a sense of community.

In addition to art therapy, Walker and a team from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) have introduced music therapy and therapeutic writing. Walker and the NEA also are developing a research protocol to measure the quantitative and qualitative benefits of creative arts therapy within the military health-care system.

Government work: Walker, 30, began her federal career in 2008 as an art therapist at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In 2010, she became the creative arts therapist and Healing Arts Program coordinator at Walter Reed’s National Intrepid Center of Excellence.

Motivation for service: Both of Walker’s grandfathers and her father served in the military. Her grandfather Clyde was injured during the Korean War and suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Walker said this background and “a passion for art led me to art therapy and specifically the use of art therapy to help heal trauma survivors.”

Biggest challenge: Teaching others about the essence of art therapy is a challenge because there are misconceptions that anyone simply making art or receiving art lessons in a health-care setting is engaged in art therapy. Art therapy, she said, is a formal psychotherapeutic process during which a trained art therapist utilizes art-making as a symbolic vehicle for communication with a patient or client within a clinical setting.

Quote: “I feel honored to work with our service members, and I am humbled by each of their experiences. . . . While I will never understand what they have been through completely, each piece of art work inches us closer to their truth. I believe the men and women that serve this country deserve to share their stories, and that the symbolic creation of these stories is meaningful, powerful and validating.”

— From the Partnership for Public Service

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