Protecting into emotion: therapeutic enactments with military veterans transitioning back into civilian life

Michael Balfour, Marvin Westwood, Marla J. Buchanan

Over 18.5% of military personnel returning from war zones to civilian life suffer mental health issues, which can lead to family breakdown, homelessness and other problems. Almost 4000 Australian soldiers have returned home from active service in the last decade suffering from combat stress and mental health conditions. A 2009 Australian independent government review warned that a new generation of veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and severe mental health disorders will emerge in the next five years, with as many as one in four likely to need mental health treatment. The Difficult Return: arts-based approaches to mental health literacy and building resilience with recently returned military personnel and their families is a three-year Australian Research Council funded arts project aimed at supporting the mental health and well-being of recently returned veterans in Australia, USA and Canada. The project combines a range of arts-based strategies to help returning veterans, including online digital films to improve awareness and help seeking motivation, a performance project with ex-soldiers and actors, and a process-based group work programme. The paper will focus specifically on the development of the Veterans Transition Programme (VTP) a partnership between Griffith University and the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. The VTP leverages the resilience and resources of veterans, providing help to participants attempting to better understand the impact of military experience on their lives. It draws on a range of psycho-educational and action-based approaches, including life review and drama enactments to engage participants in ways of dealing with disturbing events from their lives. The paper will describe and reflect on a number of the strategies used in the VTP, for example, how the drama enactments help to integrate emotion, cognition and embodied awareness, the significance of contact when working with trauma, and the importance of a therapeutic milieu in constructing ‘units’ of support for the veterans.

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