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Orlando VA Healthcare System, University of Central Florida Pilot Virtual Art Therapy Program for Veterans During Pandemic

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Photo: Brian Zarajczyk

The coronavirus pandemic has made it harder for veterans to access mental health care in Florida and across the country.

So the Orlando VA Healthcare System and the University of Central Florida came up with a solution: they’re offering online art therapy to veterans living in the Lake Baldwin domiciliary.

90.7 WMFE spoke with UCF’s Kevin Haran who teaches the classes and VA recreational therapist Mike Weaver about how art can heal. 

Read the interview below. 

Danielle: A study by the RAND Corporation found 18.5% of U.S. service members who have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq have PTSD or depression. Mike, from your experience working with these vets in Central Florida, would you say that’s accurate?

Mike: I would suggest the number is even higher than you suggested here in the Orlando area. I see a lot of veterans coming here at the Lake Baldwin domiciliary, and we’re working with veterans who have substance abuse issues as well as are homeless, or could be homeless. So yes, we’re seeing an increase in PTSD coming through.

So that is an increasing problem as we move along, especially with COVID. And the veterans getting even more isolated than before.

Danielle: And that same study found that only half of these vets who need treatment actually get help for their condition. Kevin, how is COVID-19 posed some challenges to offering these vets the help they need? I know you run an art program.

Kevin: So it’s been going well. I went ahead and changed their materials. I simplified them to basically drawing media, pencils, paper, rulers, and but they’re able to see what I’m doing on my drawing board, which is visible in the Zoom space. And I’m able to watch what they’re doing.

Danielle: Can you give me an example of some of the things that they’ve been working on and learning?

Kevin: Yeah, we spent the first few weeks working on some basic lessons in perspective, one point, two point and three point perspective, which goes back to the Renaissance. And so that they’re able to, by following some simple steps, create the illusion of three dimensional space, three dimensional objects. For example, an imaginary city scape, or different cubes. And, again, 3D forms on a 2D surface.

Danielle: A study out of Michigan State University found art therapy reduces pain, it decreases symptoms of stress, it can even improve quality of life, and that’s in cancer patients. Mike, in the case of vets, how does art therapy work in your experience with them?

Mike: I can see how they’re producing or how they’re following Kevin’s directions. And that kind of gives me indication of what I need to help them with individually. So it helps me in figuring out what goals that they have talked about and how I can help them in reaching some of those goals, but also identifying the cognitive problems that they have. And helping them to understand well, this is kind of the reason that you’re struggling so, is that you’re having problems with memory, how can we approach that and work on that as part of your treatment?

Danielle: Kevin, what sort of things have they learned and taken away from the class not just about art?

Kevin: I’ve always appreciated veterans, there are many of them in my family. And I’m just reminded that they’re their regular people that have been put in sometimes extraordinary situations. And I’ve always just gotten a lot of pleasure, being able to just work with them on a very kind of meditative act. I see drawing as this, it can be this way to kind of, maybe lose yourself in a process that can have a lot of rewards.

Listen to the full conversation, by clicking on the clip at the top of the page.

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Danielle Prieur

About Danielle Prieur

Reporter & Fill-in Host

Danielle Prieur is a general assignment reporter at WMFE. You can hear her reporting on a daily basis on the station. She also fills-in as a host during the morning and afternoon drive times. Her reporting has been featured on NPR, Marketplace, Here & Now, and Vox. Danielle is originally from Rochester Hills, ... Read Full Bio »