The past five years have been a renaissance for those of us who incorporate the arts into our work with Veterans. Movements such as Americans for the Arts’ National Initiative for Arts in Health in the Military and partnerships between the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Department of Defense (DoD) have brought this work out of the dim recesses of our relative corners of the world and illuminated it, often quite publicly. One particularly poignant example is the 2015 National Geographic issue that highlighted the masks created by wounded, ill and injured service members at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
However, as professionals who deeply engage in this work each day, we are aware that gaps remain in the continuum of care provided to Veterans. One such gap is in the transition from clinic to home-based care. Many service members and Veterans receive intensive therapy, including creative arts therapy, following an injury or illness and then return to their own corners of the world, which are disproportionately rural and isolated. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Rural Health, approximately 23% of Veterans live in rural or highly rural areas, and of these Veterans, 40% have at least one service-connected disability. These Veterans may drive to a VA hospital or community-based outpatient clinic every 1-2 months for care, but often have few resources available to them in between.
One way that the Veteran’s Health Administration has addressed the needs of Veterans for whom distance or disability limit access to care is by implementing clinical video telehealth (CVT) programs. Using CVT, Veterans at home can connect with their providers in real time. These programs work well for services like physical therapy and occupational therapy, which often require frequent visits. Three years ago, the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center in Gainesville, FL and the University of Florida Center for Arts in Medicine partnered on a project to incorporate creative arts therapy into the VA’s telehealth services with funding provided by the VA Office of Rural Health. Through the Rural Veterans Telerehabilitation Initiative Creative Arts Therapy (RVTRI CAT), Veterans participate in weekly art therapy and dance/movement therapy sessions from their own homes using clinical video telehealth.
One of the unanticipated results of RVTRI CAT is that Veterans seem to engage more deeply in creative processes than they may during creative arts therapy sessions that occur in a hospital or therapist’s office. These Veterans make space in their homes to engage in arts processes and often continue to create after a session ends or between therapy sessions. Some Veterans have home studios, workshops, or garages where they work with found objects and wood. These Veterans may not have access to these same supplies at the VA, but can incorporate these supplies into their work with providers at a distance by using laptops or tablets. One Veteran even brought his iPad with him to the workshop of a community woodworker and connected with his therapist while he had his first woodworking lesson. These examples demonstrate the real value of technology: it can create a much-needed bridge connecting Veterans more deeply with their own art practices and with people in their home communities, breaking the isolation so common in post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
This year, Creative Forces: The NEA Military Healing Arts Network has partnered with RVTRI CAT to integrate telehealth into its creative arts therapy network. The expectation is that telehealth technology will ease the transition for Veterans from clinical to community care, make it easier for Veterans to remain connected with their providers, and allow providers to support military service members and Veterans as they find ways to continue their creative practices in their own homes and communities. We know that rural communities often have incredibly talented artists, musicians, and performers, many of whom would love to become part of this network of support. Often artists living in rural areas haven’t considered teaming with local Veterans or may not understand the unique needs of military service members. We believe that telehealth will allow creative arts therapists and community artists to partner with one another in service to those who serve us through military duty.
For those artists who are interested in this work, the National Initiative for Arts in Health in the Military website is rich with information and resources. You may learn more about the unique needs of military service members and Veterans through resources such as Arts Deployed: An Action Guide for Community Arts & Military Programming. Also, consider joining the National Initiative for Arts in Health in the Military Network Directory to find and connect with other artists and creative artists therapists in your local area.