November 11, 2020 (Updated November 4, 2021)

1. Veterans Day dates back to World War I.

Veterans Day originated as “Armistice Day” on Nov. 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” that signaled the end of World War I. Nov. 11th became a national holiday beginning in 1938. Since then, Veterans Day pays tribute to all American veterans who served their country honorably during war or peacetime.

2. Veterans who have served after Sept. 11, 2001 are particularly vulnerable to mental health conditions.

For art therapists, Veterans Day serves as an opportunity to raise awareness about the mental health of veterans and service members. Among veterans who have served since the September 11, 2001, attacks, approximately one in five experiences mental health issues, including PTSD, major depression, and anxiety, according to the RAND Corporation. The number of veteran suicides exceeded 6,000 each year from 2008 to 2017—1.5 times the rate for non-veteran adults, after adjusting for population differences in age and sex, according to the Veterans Affairs Department (VA).

3. Art interventions have been used with service members and veterans since World War I.

Therapeutic art interventions were used during World War I by occupational therapists, Red Cross volunteers and artists, some of whom created wearable masks for disfigured soldiers. Adrian Hill was a British soldier, artist, and author, who first coined the term “art therapy” in 1942. Hill recognized the power of art-making itself as healing while working with soldiers recovering from tuberculosis during World War I.

From 1944 – 48, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) hosted the War Veterans’ Art Center and used therapists trained in the visual arts to help with rehabilitation. “The principle object of the Center” which served 1,485 post World War II veterans, “was to help veterans adjust themselves through the creative process,” according to a 1948 MOMA press release. (View a poster for the Center, c. 1941–45).

4. Art Therapy is particularly helpful for veterans.

For returning service members and veterans suffering from PTSD for example, art therapy is used to reduce debilitating symptoms, provide opportunities for expression and resolution of painful memories, and enhance stress reduction through art-based relaxation techniques and coping skills. In fact, a 2018 study found that art therapy experiences fostered improvement in interpersonal relatedness, hopefulness and gratification for the service members in treatment, and helped them construct a trauma narrative imperative for recovery.

“Visual arts offer veterans suffering from PTSD a nonthreatening alternative to compose in images what is inexpressible to them with words,” described Rosemarie Rogers, ATR-BC, LCAT. “It is a way in and often the first step to organize and express overwhelming feelings and sensations they experience. Most importantly, their own artwork becomes the narrative to tell their story and is the foundation that we use to begin therapy.”

“A mask-making exercise is typically done as one of the first exercises in the art therapy program at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) at Walter Reed,” explained retired Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant Chris Stowe in testimony before a congressional committee on how art therapy helped address his combat injuries. “I can attest to the mixed emotions that can be felt during a mask-making exercise: guilt, fear, and self-loathing/self-doubt at first, then, while moving through the making of the mask, feelings of exhilaration, freedom, resolution, and accomplishment can start to emerge. I know that it helped show the way for me as it pertained to how I personally viewed myself. (‘Normal’ on the outside, demon and broken on the inside.)”

5. Supporting federal funding for the arts supports veterans.

The federally funded National Endowment for the Arts’ Creative Forces program offers a national network of care for active duty service members, veterans, and their families and caregivers, in medical treatment or transitioning back home to their bases and communities. In addition, it provides community-based arts opportunities for military and veteran populations and their families around clinical site locations, as well as via virtual arts engagement. Community projects receive $50,000 grants. Visit the Creative Forces National Resource Center to find tools for service members, veterans, their families, and caregivers through the arts.

In addition, for the first time ever, the VA received a ground-breaking $5 million direct appropriation for FY 2020 for creative arts therapies to treat veterans through their Whole Health initiative. The appropriations bill also directed the VA to study the feasibility and advisability of making creative arts therapy, as well as yoga, meditation, chiropractic care, and acupuncture also accessible as treatment for mental health conditions at all VA facilities, either in person, or through telehealth.

6. Congress passed new veterans’ mental health legislation in 2020.

In 2020, Congress passed the bipartisan Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, which is now law. Named in memory of retired Navy SEAL Commander John Scott Hannon, who had a distinguished career in US Special Operations Command and as a leader of SEAL Team Two, and tragically took his own life. The law bolsters the VA’s mental health workforce and increase rural veterans’ access to care with alternative and local treatment options. It also boosts research and expand access to mental health care options, including implementing a pilot program offering integrative health programs including art therapy.

7. Veterans are also artists.

While we think of veterans’ art-making as part of their therapy, many veterans are artists in their own right. The National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago hosts the largest collection dedicated to preservation and exhibition of art created by US veterans.

Women veterans, the fastest growing veteran population, are also sharing stories of their military experiences and life accomplishments through art. The Women Veterans Art Project (WVAP) works with the VA to host art exhibitions at select VA medical centers nationwide.

Creative arts festivals such as the Austin Veteran Art Festival (AVAfest), which is being held online for 2021, also help showcase veterans’ art. In 2020, we spoke with art therapist, sculptor and veteran Peter J. Buotte, MFA, MPS about his AVAfest exhibit, “Invisible Wounds”.

These exhibits are also effective ways to help veterans explain and connect with the civilian community around them, so be sure to look for local events in your area or online!