Colors on the canvas heal anxiety, depression and PTSD

Phil Briggs
September 18, 2018 - 2:17 pm



Modern science is constantly finding new and innovative ways to treat the visible wounds of service members and veterans.

But, the psychiatric professionals at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC), may be proving ancient methods are the best way to treat the invisible wounds of psychological trauma: art therapy.

“Using art allows our patients to communicate without words," said Mallory Van Fossen, Art Therapy Director at Walter Reed.

Though it may sound impossible to sort through feelings and emotions without discussion, using art is proving to be one of the most effective ways to heal. “Whether it’s drawing or painting, art of any kind uses a completely different part of the brain.” Van Fossen said. “And this allows them to express feelings and emotions they may not even have words for.”


However, Van Fossen explained that uncovering the right words is not as simple as just drawing memories.  “I don’t ask patients draw what’s bothering them.  But, I may ask them to draw a feeling or an emotion … like relaxation or anger, if those were places what would they look like?”


Above: A multi media piece created by a recent art therapy patient at WRNMMC.

“That was when art therapy took ahold of me,” explained Navy Chief Petty Officer Khamvah Phetkhamyath.  The Laotion native explained how a sexual trauma led to depression, anxiety and PTSD. Her recovery plan had included both Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) and medication therapies.  But when she began Van Fossen’s Art Therapy group sessions, the impact was immediate. “It opened up emotions inside that I had been keeping in the dark abyss,” said Phetkhamyath. “I started using the color black to express the anger, the fear and the hatred.   I used black in everything … then I just started to cry,  because, I didn’t have to express it in words, I could finally express it in the color I was feeling,”


Above: One of Chief Phetkhamyath's first works entitled, "You Destroyed Me"

Some of the pictures hanging on the walls in Van Fossen’s office stand in contrast to the pain her patients work through.  They’re everything from brightly colored abstracts to warm landscapes.  She described them as some of her favorite parts of the program.  “When you begin to see their work change over time, you realize they are processing their trauma … and the brain is able to change the things associated with certain memories.”

“Towards the end of the program the colors started to change for me,” said Phetkhamyath.  "I could see that it was going from black and red, to more beautiful colors. I was using rainbows.  And emotionally I was feeling good.  My soul was at ease about things.  Can I say that art therapy saved my life?  I can say that it saved the part of me that needed saving, and it allows me to now see things in a different light.”


Above: An image Chief Phetkhamyath created called "Brighter Future". 

At the conclusion of art therapy, Phetkhamyath described a guided meditation, where she was asked to draw the advice she would receive from her an older and wiser version of herself. “She told me I was loved, courageous and always going to be strong,” explained the Navy Chief.  She went on to describe how she channeled those words into a final picture, “The picture is a path. With beautiful fall colors everywhere … and I keep it in my study because it reminds me,  that I’m always on that path.”



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