The Washington Post

Helping soldiers with traumatic brain injuries through art therapy


(National Intrepid Center of Excellence)

At only 30 years of age, Melissa Walker is helping to heal the invisible wounds of our nation’s service members from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Walker, a creative arts therapist, developed and implemented the Healing Arts Program at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, part of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center that serves active-duty service members suffering from combat and mission-related traumatic brain injury with underlying psychological health conditions. 

According to the Defense Department, more than 266,000 military members suffered from traumatic brain injuries from 2000 to 2012.

During an intensive four week program, service members receive care focused on cognition, physical and psychological health and rehabilitation. The art and music therapy and therapeutic writing programs developed by Walker are integrated in the health care regime.

“I am humbled by each of their experiences, which they openly share with me through an outpouring of creativity,” said Walker. “While I will never understand what they have been through completely, each piece of artwork created inches us closer to their truth.”  

Art therapy is provided to assess and treat psychological health and cognitive issues as well as to introduce art making for relaxation and well-being. Service members participate in individual art therapy sessions, enabling Walker to establish treatment goals and create art projects based on those goals. The goals range from helping to improve memory and attention spans to decreasing anger and anxiety.  

Walker said there are group sessions designed to increase socialization and create a sense of community, which is important for those suffering from the isolation that post-traumatic stress disorder can cause.  

During the initial group project, Walker asks service members to depict their “warrior identities” through mask making. This project enables the individuals to express their feelings in a non-verbal way and share their stories, according to Walker.

“It is a crucial moment in their treatment,” said Walker. “They will come in unsure about their art making abilities and why they are creating a mask, but during the process, many will share things that they never have shared before.” 

Sara Kass, the center’s deputy commander, said people often wonder how the “warrior population” engages with the art therapy.  

“Melissa has created an environment that is a reflection of her personality – non-judging,” said Kass. “Melissa meets the service members where they are at and then helps them get to a place where they feel safe to begin to engage in the arts.”

In addition to art therapy, Walker and a team from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) have introduced creative writing workshops as well as music therapy. Walker and the NEA also are developing a research protocols to measure the quantitative and qualitative benefits of creative arts therapy within the military healthcare system. 

“The very core of our partnership is a shared goal to improve our understanding of what the health impacts of these activities really are. It is a shared commitment to give back to these service members who have sacrificed so much for us,” said the NEA’s Bill O’Brien, who works closely with Walker.

Walker hears frequently from patients who are continuing to engage in art following the four-week program.  

“One service member who just got a full ride to Vassar College wrote a play for his application. Another one opened up his own studio at home and is selling his artwork and giving the proceeds to the Wounded Warrior Project,” Walker said.  

“I view the art therapy that occurs here as a springboard for the rest of their care. The men and woman that serve this country deserve to share their stories, and the symbolic creation of these stories is meaningful, powerful and validating.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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