The Art of Recovering from War: Training the Next Generation of Military Physicians

White Coat Ceremony at USU

The military face many health risks and challenges on the battlefield, but the scars they carry are not always visible. While physical injuries are on the decline in recent years, service members are increasingly struggling with lingering psychological tolls.

More than 500,000 veterans of the U.S. military live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). The costs of managing PTSD and TBI are high; treatment for PTSD and/or TBI through the Veterans Affairs is estimated to cost $2.2 billion for the first four years of treatment alone. Unfortunately, traditional methods of care, including medication and counseling, are not always effective.

To combat the rising mental health difficulties service members face today, the military is training its medical professionals to tackle the issue with a more holistic approach, including art therapy.

Art Therapy:  A New Front for Treating Mental Health

The Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine (USU) is leading the charge. A medical school dedicated to training future generations of military physicians and medical leaders, USU will add art therapy to its curriculum this fall.

Art therapies have been found to help military patients and families process traumatic experiences and manage psychological health conditions. These therapies may involve a variety of creative outlets, including painting, music, dance, and writing. Research has shown that service members enrolled in such treatments, through programs like Creative Forces, are better able to cope with anxiety, grief, and stress.

In collaboration with Walter Reed National Medical Center, USU has embraced the importance of the arts in holistic health care by introducing a new elective for third and fourth year medical students called Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: Arts, Health, and Well-being. Launching in Fall 2019, this course will teach students how to integrate the arts in non-pharmacologic management of pain, trauma and other health pathologies.

During the four-week course, students will rotate through several community partners in the Washington D.C. area, including creative arts therapists, performers, and artists in health care. Students will experience first-hand how different kinds of art and creative engagement can foster healing environments, strengthen treatment plans, and cultivate wellness. They will also participate in art-centered activities and reflect on the personal impact of these experiences.

Impact Thinking for Future Military Doctors

The International Arts + Mind Lab (IAM Lab) will serve as a community partner for the course, sharing expertise about the field of neuroaesthetics from a research perspective.

The rotation with IAM Lab will expose students to our portfolio of research studies based on our Impact Thinking approach, which supports building the evidence base for the use of the arts to improve health, wellbeing and learning.

Learning goals for students include:

  • understanding the Impact Thinking theoretical framework and how it is utilized in a research setting to explore the neurobiology of the arts
  • applying neuroaesthetics to a medical environment through discussions with our research partners
  • recognizing the importance of the arts as both a preventative medicine tool and therapeutic treatment for combating chronic disease

By joining forces with IAM Lab and arts community partners, the USU will prepare our nation’s future doctors to think more creatively and holistically about how to best care for our service members and veterans. As more medical schools follow suit, art therapy courses may help paint a brighter picture for mental health treatments as a whole.

Written and reported by Smita Bhattacharya, Program Manager at IAM Lab.

Image: USU

Art Therapy IAM Lab Medicine Mental Health Military