In the Community

Veterans Find Mental Health Support Through EVMS Art Program

Flowers bloomed on paper, one pink, one orange, one translucent peach.

Vicky, the budding artist, attempted different effects on each flower. With watercolor pencils, she outlined simple petals around center circles. For pink, she used water to make the color drip and run. The orange flower she left unaltered. She chose the pale peach pencil to evoke something fuzzy and unfocused.

“I was trying to represent my past, my present, and my future,” Vicky said.

Vicky last tried to be artistic in grade school about 50 years ago, she said. But now, as a participant in the Eastern Virginia Medical School Optimal Health Veterans Project, the art class brings her respite from her treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. “I’ve never done anything like this before,” Vicky said. “As long as I try, that is artistic.”

The program began in March supported by funding from the Hampton Roads Community Foundation’s Community Leadership Partners giving circle. The group oversees an annual competitive grants program with support from members’ pooled resources. Last year the group voted to fund programs that offer non-clinical mental health support to the community.

The EVMS program encourages veterans and military members to explore personal expression through art. The program is led by art therapists who can help participants express thoughts, feelings, and experiences through art and with peers. The art therapists can also identify mental health concerns, offer support, and connect veterans to additional services.

Vicky is an Army veteran who served 10 years and deployed to Germany and Korea. Others in the group served or continue to serve in the Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard – no Marines in the group, although they are welcome. The Foundation is using only the first names of the group’s participants for this story to protect their identities.

“There’s a lot of stigma around mental health services,” said Mary Roberts (pictured at left), the director of the Arts for Optimal Health Program in the School of Health Professions at EVMS. “That’s where the Community Leadership Partners are helping. We’re trying to help connect people in the community to decrease the stigma of seeking help.”

 Art helps to recalibrate the brain, Roberts said. It can provide a sense of calm, reduce anxiety, and release tension through movement.

 Each person receives a journal to work in and carry art home with them, and to write down their “intentions” – what they want to get out of each class.

“People in highly structured environments like the military are trained not to feel,” she said. "They become numb to positive and negative.”

In this class, veterans can use art to explore feelings and connect with each other. The art therapist guides them to more intense support if needed.

Justin Steil, a Community Leadership Partners member, said the EVMS program’s focus on decreasing the stigma of mental health services and support for the military impressed the grantmaking committee.

 “We were excited to see this program from EVMS that is intentionally focused on helping veterans and active-duty service members,” he said. “They have given so much to help others.”

The studio in the D’Art Center brimmed with art supplies. Watercolor trays and tubes of acrylic paint nestled in bins stacked to the ceiling. Paintbrushes in yogurt cups lined the windowsills. Another room held clay and throwing wheels. Roberts said the variety allows participants to explore different ways of expressing themselves.

In the clay room, Anna workedon mugs for her husband to show him she’s grateful that he “puts up with” her.

Another participant, TJ, said that he is “90 percent disabled by PTSD, 100 percent unemployable.” He said the art class helps him to fill his time.

Roberts listened intently and then offered help to connect him to a veterans’ resource center or organizations where he could volunteer with other veterans.

In the studio, Dave made careful brush strokes to create the reflection of the shoreline next to a lake under snow-covered mountains.

“Mountains are my happy place,” he said. The class gave him a place to “cut out the noise of daily life.”

“For me, art is a distraction from my career, business, and daily stress,” he said. “It helps to realign your happiness anytime you can focus on art.”

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