I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a national summit on arts, health, and wellbeing across the military on 10 April 2013. It was held at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) just outside of Washington, DC.
I did not know a great deal about creative arts therapies prior to the event so I did some reading. They include creative arts like music, dance, painting, sculpting, poetry, drama, and writing. In the US there is a National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapies Association (www.nccata.org). Their mission is to promote the use of creative arts therapists who use arts modalities and creative processes to ameliorate disability and illness while optimizing health and wellness. The dividing line between art activities and art therapy is that the latter is done by licensed counsellors who seek to use art as a modality for psychotherapy and counselling, as a tool in improving communication and expression, as well as increasing physical, cognitive, and social functioning. So, it is art with a behavioral health component and/or outcome.
The summit was limited to one very compacted day with key note speakers and panels interspersed with inspirational performances of music and dance. The afternoon was spent in breakout sessions devoted to small group discussions around research, policy, and practice in defined stages of the military. I participated in a discussion on the use of creative arts therapy at a pre-deployment and active duty stage.
Examples of the excellent performances by soldiers on active duty and veterans who have benefitted from the creative arts included a dance performance called “Conflicted” by the New York based Exit 12 Dance Company, whose artistic director, Roman Baca, a veteran who was previously deployed as a Marine to Fallujah, Iraq. Also, Musicorps, which was founded by Arthur Bloom, performed. The Musicorps Band is comprised of active duty wounded warriors. Their powerful rendition of my favorite song, “Wish You Were Here” moved me to tears.
However, as a scientist, I am forever thinking, “Show me the evidence.” The main thing I took away from the summit is that there is a body of research that supports music therapy (recreational music making) and that this research model can be expanded to other forms of arts therapy. There is a lot that is going on that provides outlets for creativity and encourages creativity, but cannot necessarily be called “therapy.” However, the outpouring of interest from those in the creative arts was inspirational.
The evidence for music therapy (in terms of RCTs and rigorous systematic reviews) is the most robust (although not overwhelming due to the small number of studies available) of all of the creative arts therapies.
In case you are unfamiliar with music therapy, I will include the plain language summaries from a smattering of Cochrane reviews:
Future summits might benefit from panels and training sessions that look at how more robust research in music and other forms of arts therapy can be organised as researchers, artists, and art therapists might not necessarily reside within the same institutions or even know one another. Further, more than identifying funding sources, grant writing is a skill—and again this is where partnerships or the creation of a platform in which partnerships can be nurtured might be beneficial in furthering the body of knowledge around the use of creative arts for wellbeing.
I went from marginally aware skeptic to advocate in a short time. Many people will guffaw at the idea of “arts in the military,” but there is great potential to help heal the invisible wounds of a decade of war. More research is needed, but recreational music therapy is a trail blazer for the other therapies. In addition to the hard numbers and evidence presented, I was moved by the musical and dance performances by service members and veterans who have benefitted from creative arts therapy. As always, I am thankful to have been included and had the chance to learn.
Tracey Pérez Koehlmoos is the special assistant to the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps and senior program liaison for community health integration for the US Marine Corps.
The opinions expressed in this article are her own and in no way reflect the opinions of the US Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or any other agency.