Melissa Walker, an art therapist working with veterans, recently lead a TED Talk about the use of mask-making as a type of art therapy for veterans suffering from combined PTSD and TBI. Melissa works at the National Intrepid Center for Excellence at Walter Reed, and has found that the symbolic nature of masks, the act of putting a face on trauma, on a piece of art, can begin significant healing.
A combination of physical blast trauma and psychological injury from exposure to the inhumanity of war can lead to a protective response by the brain–it seems to wall off the trauma, to hide it away in a primitive part of the brain. This act of sequestering is an emergency response, but the longer the brain sequesters the trauma, the deeper and more entrenched it becomes.
Talking isn’t going to reach into this primitive zone, and medication isn’t, either. The brain is unable to process the experience because it’s hidden away, and keeping it quiet and hidden and under control takes a huge amount of energy and effort.
The mask-making is a nonverbal way to give a face to this experience, a way color and form can be used to shape an experience and share feelings in a way that is powerful, direct, and healing. With a personal, concrete image taking point, traditional therapies can begin to reintegrate talking and speech to process an experience that has, until then, been out of the realm of speech-based therapies.
The National Intrepid Center for Excellence is an intensive healing therapy program that combines neurology and psychology. National Geographic recently published a photo on its cover of retired Marine Gunnery Sgt. Aaron Tam holding a mask he made in the program. The mask shows his brain exposed, first by blast trauma from combat, and then by the invasive imaging machines of modern medicine. National Geographic has published a documentary called Behind the Mask. It includes photos of vets wearing the masks they made, and short interviews with the veterans and their wives.
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