Art appreciation program helps veterans deal with anxiety, depression
By HOLLY ZACHARIAH | The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio | Published: August 7, 2017
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — He calls it "sitting with the discomfort,'' learning to deal with the anxiety he feels when talking to people he doesn't know or being in unfamiliar situations.
Even now, as B.J. Stull speaks about it, he glances at the friendly face of the woman sitting beside him, hoping for maybe a smile or a nod of affirmation as he explains how important a new veteran-centered arts program at the Chalmers P. Wylie VA Ambulatory Care Center has been in his life.
Through the new Veteran Arts Initiative, Stull participated in a weekly class at the Wexner Center for the Arts in the spring where a group of about a dozen studied the exhibits, discussed specific pieces and visited with multiple artists-in-residence.
"It was uncomfortable for me sometimes, the idea that maybe I just wasn't 'getting' a certain piece. Then, I realized others maybe weren't getting it either," said Stull, a 47-year-old Navy veteran from the East Side who works hard to overcome his anxiety and depression. "There was a lot of introspection and that was helpful, to do something constructive with people and not be in a clinical setting."
Heather Seymour, the licensed social worker who started this arts program at Chalmers on the East Side last fall, called those realizations "magic moments." This, she stresses, is not art therapy. The programs are not meant to address specific traumas but instead to use the arts — visual arts, music, theater and dance — to bring together veterans and their families for something meaningful, in an environment where they feel cared for and appreciated.
"This is about building community," she said. National statistics show that, on average, 20 or so veterans kill themselves each day, and more than half of them weren't not connected to the VA system in any way. Also, at least half of the veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not using any mental-health services.
"We need to cast a wider net," Seymour said. "How do we know who is silently struggling? If they have great experiences with programs, maybe someday that will lead them to a service. We create a bridge between the worlds."
Since last fall, other aspects of the program have included a Shakespeare workshop with an Ohio State University professor for both veterans and caregivers, a mural project in the lobby of the Chalmers clinic, regular open-mike nights, and a women-specific art class. In addition, Seymour's office will soon become an "arts kitchen," a service that runs like a food pantry except veterans can get art supplies instead of bread and milk.
Stull is a member of a volunteer board of about 20 veterans who help guide the programming and make suggestions on what will work best.
Tuesday, Seymour and some of those volunteers will be in Washington, D.C., to pitch the program to Veterans Affairs Secretary David J. Shulkin and a panel of others interested in hearing about innovative VA programs. The goal is to someday secure more funding (there is currently a $5,000 budget and a $20,000 grant) and to get other regional VAs to adopt this arts model, Seymour said.
One of the things she will tell Shulkin about is research that will start this month to try to quantify how art reduces stress. Sixty veterans will participate in five-week art and drawing workshops with a professor at the Columbus College of Art & Design. While in the program, veterans will swab the inside of their cheek each morning to check cortisol (stress hormone) levels. They also will track and self-report their pain rating and anxiety and depression levels.
"People benefit from a moving hand. If the hand is moving, we process things a different way," Seymour said. "Drawing and art is a side-door approach to what it means to be a human. What it means to be sad, what it means to feel joy. We think we will see real benefits."
Gloria Weimerskirch, a Vietnam-era Marine from Canal Winchester, has participated in many of the arts-initiative projects so far and had already seen it make a difference.
"That's the thing about the arts — there's something for everyone," she said. "And when you bring the veteran, the family, the community in together, it helps everyone begin to collectively understand, 'We are not alone.' It's just another way to connect and learn about yourself and others.'"
©2017 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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