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Measuring Art Therapy’s Impact On Veterans 5

Thousands of veterans attend UT-Arlington and many deal with disabilities and lingering trauma. Could they benefit from art therapy? Amanda Alexander, an associate professor in art education, conducted research to find out.  In our weekly State of the Arts conversation, I sat down with Alexander about the connection between making art and modulating your mood.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation. Click above to listen to the piece that aired on KERA-FM.

You embarked on this project about art therapy and veterans, but you’re not a therapist. How did you come to it?

amanda alexander

Amanda Alexander

So, I consider myself an art educator who does community-based research. And what that means is basically bringing people together to collaborate on projects to help benefit communities, and research the process of what that looks like. I was working with students who were very interested in art therapy and they sort of piqued my interest in it even more. A lot of my students are veterans so they were asking me questions about it, so that sort of got me into it and then noticing that there were no accredited programs in art therapy in Texas in any university. So I felt there was a hole there, a gap that needed to be filled.

You have a fairly large population of veterans at UT Arlington right?

Yes, we have almost 5,000 veterans enrolled. I think it’s one of the highest populations of veterans at universities in Texas.

What are some of the issues that these veterans were maybe wanting to work on in art therapy? 

So I think for a lot of veterans, it’s hard for them to speak about their trauma or disability. So making art is sort of a different avenue of being able to release and relax. You kind of enter a meditative state when you make art. And for these folks, I think it’s pretty perfect, you know. It calms them.

You wanted to do research on this but first, you need to come up with a program to research, right?

Yeah, so I reached out to the Art Station in Fort Worth, which is a non-profit art therapy organization, and one of the only ones in the area. They’ve been there for over 30 years. They were the ones who actually led and engaged the participants in the art making through their art therapy protocol.

Part of your research was measuring the mood states of the people who participated in the therapy classes both before the class and after the class. And you found that the art therapy exercises seemed to correlate with a calmer mood.

So the Profile of Mood States measures mood disturbance. Things like anxiety, depression, anger.  When you come in, you take this survey and then when you make the art, you take the survey again. So it shows whether or not some of that anger, hostility, depression has changed. And what I found was that for most of the participants it had relaxed or calmed them. There was one workshop that we involved technology and that was the only one, and I need to collect data to find out really what’s going on there, but it was the one that was basically equal. The pre and post-test mood state was equal from beginning to end but the others showed a mood disturbance has reduced in the participants.

Technology can challenge my mood some days. 

Yes. The other thing that I learned was that through the qualitative collection there’s a story here. Not just collection of data but real life testimonial stories of people saying, “you know I was in the military 30 years ago and I have this trauma. And it took me a long time to come to terms with this trauma. And through making art it has really helped me heal.” I heard that multiple times form multiple participants.

You mentioned that there are no degree programs for art therapy in Texas. Are you trying to make the case to change that? 

Yes, so at UTA part of what I’m trying to do is exactly what you mentioned assess the situation. Is this something that is worth wild to pursue? And maybe start a degree there or at least a certificate in art therapy. I have several students currently who are taking the required classes in psychology so that they can go on and get a masters in art therapy at another university. And they would have to go out of state to get that masters degree.

Our interview was edited for brevity and clarity.