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Art Therapy Vanishing at Veterans Hospitals

By: JACKIE SPINNER The Washington Post
Date: 4/15/2007 Last update: 5/2/2007

Fort Worth Star-Telegram (TX)
Section: News
Edition: Tarrant
Page: A8

WASHINGTON — Eric Edmondson cannot express in words what he remembers about the fall day in Iraq 18 months ago when a roadside bomb and then a heart attack left him with shrapnel wounds and brain damage. The 26-year-old veteran cannot eat, walk or talk. But he can paint. When he does, his father sees glimmers of memory and healing as the former Army sergeant tries to paint his thoughts on blank paper.

"I can tell by his expression he's enjoying it," Ed Edmondson said of Eric's art therapy classes. "I don't care what it looks like. It's beautiful to me."

Veterans with traumatic combat injuries often find healing power in art. They communicate by drawing, sculpting and painting. Their images range from calm, colorful landscapes to mangled vehicles, prisoners and carnage. The therapy especially helps those with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Yet military and veterans hospitals employ few art therapists. The Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington and Walter Reed Army Medical Center provide limited art therapy classes. VA hospitals in Baltimore, Richmond, Va., and Philadelphia offer none. Paula Howie, president of the American Art Therapy Association, was director of art therapy at Walter Reed from 1980 to 2002. She had eight art therapists on staff then. Now the medical center has one full-time and one part-time art therapist.

"I think what was happening is that there were a lot of funding cuts," said Howie, who went into private practice in Silver Spring, Md., after retiring from Walter Reed. "People started to say, 'Do you want a nurse, or would you like to have an art therapist?'"

David Read Johnson, who directed an inpatient unit at the VA's National Center for PTSD in Connecticut, said art programs began to disappear after he left the center in 1997. "In the 1970s and 1980s, creative-arts therapies were doing well," said Johnson, a psychologist who now runs a private PTSD center in New Haven, Conn. "But it's just like in schools: You cut the arts first."

By the numbers:

  • 691 Number of therapists of all types employed nationwide by VA medical centers.
  • 36 Number of that total who are music therapists.
  • 18 Number of art therapists.

SOURCE: Veterans Affairs Department

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