Healing Arts Program (Shrine Article)

Remembrance (The Official Shrine Magazine)

April Vol 6 No1
Healing Arts

Art has long been associated with the military. Within Australia’s military tradition the arts have played multiple roles: in recording Australia’s involvement in war, as the musical accompaniment to ceremonies and in the, lesser known, rehabilitation and recovery of the wounded, injured and ill.

The Australian National Veterans Arts Museum (ANVAM) is a charity established in Melbourne by art teacher and art therapist, Tanja Johnston, and her husband Mark, himself a veteran, to help restore the healing role of the arts for veterans. Through her work over the past 15 years, art therapy and arts engagement are gaining prominence in the serving and veteran community by addressing and supporting mental, social and physical health for veterans and families.

Tanja explains ‘Veterans are supported by ANVAM through art therapy and arts engagement. Art therapy is a recognised psychotherapeutic allied health profession that emerged in Australia, the United Kingdom and United States, largely from the military repatriation use of arts for recovery during the First and Second World Wars. Art therapy involves art-making in a therapeutic relationship witnessed by a qualified art therapist, with emphasis on the process rather than the product. A unique yet rewarding challenge is the way each generation of veterans has differing needs, from Second Word War veterans in their 90’s to recent veterans in their early 20’s.’

Afghanistan veteran, Michael Williams shares his story.

When I returned home from active service overseas, I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and a number of Anxiety disorders. This was on top of numerous physical injuries, some of which required surgery and ongoing physiotherapy to this day. My mental health deteriorated to such a degree I found myself hospitalised in a psychiatric ward for veterans and civilians alike. It was here I met art therapists Tanja Johnston and Jandy Paramanathan from ANVAM who conduct the art therapy program for inpatients.

At first I was hesitant and reluctant, unaware and oblivious to the rewards that their program and art itself possessed. My personal lack of experience in art caused me to feel uncertain in participating in any art therapy, uncertainty which manifested into fear and avoidance because of the unknown. Then ANVAM opened up my world to a new and different form of treatment to my mental health problems, art. Art therapy allowed me to limit the stimulus I was over exposed to due to my severe anxiety and heightened state of alertness. They really accommodated me by providing a relaxing atmosphere, in turn allowing me to channel my concentration on the creative process of art. No longer was I bound by any formal policies and procedures; a rigid way of life controlled by rules and guidelines long engrained and instilled in me by serving as a Defence member.

With art I could paint wherever, whenever, whatever and however I chose. The freedom and creativity was a new and exhilarating experience that reduced unhelpful thoughts and allowed me to express myself freely. Art takes time and I was unaware that brush stroke by brush stroke, I was not only being expressive and creative, but I was also processing that which I couldn’t do using words. Different types of art and techniques allowed me to express emotions and feelings and put me on a path of healing. The more I get involved in art the better I feel mentally, emotionally and sometimes even physically.

Art, to me, is truly an amazing ingredient to recovery and by expressing myself creatively my quality of life has improved dramatically. My stress has reduced, self-esteem and insight has increased and my emotions and behaviour are far more stable, comfortable and pleasant to live with than ever before.

I was a soldier but now I call myself an artist.

Iraq veteran Gordon Traill has also turned to the arts.

Iraq 2004, with what little down time I had, I found ‘a happy place’ by taking pictures of the ‘Diggers, dust storms, urban decay and the local population’. Viewing those images now evokes a bond and mateship with those Diggers that will never be broken. Capturing a time in your life when you know that life and death can come at any time. I didn’t know it at the time, photography provided a form of release for me in the deadliest city on earth at that time, Baghdad.

A few years later I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and was lost. I lost my job, identity, and my will to live and was struggling with family life. I had no focus except to get through each day. I wasn’t contributing to anything; family, society and became isolated in my own little word of nothing.

My wife suggested that I take up a hobby and she remembered the joy that photography gave me during my time in Iraq. It started with a trip to Hawaii with a small camera which then progressed to a larger camera. I felt I was contributing something and had a reason to live again. Photography has taken me to places that I never thought possible after being diagnosed with PTSD. It has taken me to third-world countries and soup kitchens, to documenting veteran issues and telling stories through the lens of my camera. Photography became my therapy to combat PTSD, I am now in a better place.

Gordon now proudly supports ANVAM as an Arts mentor. The Shrine of Remembrance aims to hold an exhibition of his work in 2017.