Creative Wellness - VA Salt Lake City Health Care System
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Creative Wellness

Veterans at tables working on an art project

Veterans work on sculptures as part of the Creative Wellness program.

By Jeremy M. Laird
Friday, August 24, 2018

Art enabling Veterans at VA Salt Lake City Health Care System

You can hear the laughing and joking of about a dozen Veterans as you walk down the hall of the Substance Abuse Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program (SARRTP) unit on the campus of the George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center. Inside a small room lined with drawings and scratch art, two tables jut out from the wall closest to the door, another table runs down the wall by a window overlooking a small courtyard. The Veterans are all seated at the tables busy creating animals from modeling clay—creating their spirit animals.

“We actually have a lot of natural artists that come into the program and they reconnect with the part of them that they kind of thought was lost,” reports Liz Shubin, SARRTP Nurse Manager and creator of the Creative Wellness art program.


Watch: Creative Wellness


Liz started the program after Veterans would often come looking for art supplies while in the recovery program. Liz, whose first degree was in art, started pursuing supplies and space for a Veterans art program. The program launched 18 months ago. The program is research based and helps Veterans in several ways.

A chemical change happens in the brain when a person becomes addicted to a drug. The art wellness program looks to change that—if even ever so slightly.

“Reward signals in the brain get blunted,” said Liz. “Simple things like sitting with a group of people and chatting and drawing don’t bring any joy… We provide art therapy which is proven to help change the brain chemistry.”

Woman holding mask decorated with words and photos

Mask decorated by Veteran. Words and images on outside of mask represent how the Veteran feels the world views him/her.

While that chemical change can take months, the program shows Veterans alternatives to isolation and substance abuse and helps develop some healthy new hobbies and habits.

Douglas, an Army Veteran who served in Afghanistan, was already seeing the benefits. “Our [other] classes and groups and stuff can be pretty emotional and difficult. Where this is, you know, we don't have to think about any of that… This is something that I haven't done in a really long time that brings back memories before addiction as well. So, it kind of helps me get out of that [addiction] mindset.”

The art therapy also helps with other ailments afflicting Veterans fighting addiction.

“The rationale behind the program is art has been proven to reduce anxiety and stress. It can also help alleviate depression,” Liz said.

Liz says the class promotes anxiety, because it is held in such a small space and forces the participants, who often isolate in their rooms, out of their comfort zones.

“They get out of that headspace so they're not so filled with anxiety, and have a whole lot of things going through their brains,” said Codie Archibald, Creative Wellness teacher and a registered nurse. “We just kind of let them have an outlet—get away from that mindset of anxiety.”

The Art Wellness program forces the participants to interact with other Veterans in the recovery program.

“They get kind of melancholy and isolative” said Codie. “We're able to just draw out something within them so they don't just go into a dark room and sit there and think about their substance of choice over and over again.”

Woman holding mask decorated with words and images.

Mask decorated by Veteran. Words and images on inside of mask represent how the Veteran feels about him/herself.

Through the program, the participants start to build an esprit de corps.

“These my fellow Veterans,” said Army Veteran Joshua pointing to the room where the other Veterans work on their projects. “You know we’re like our own little family… We may joke around and give them crap but you know in the long run that they’ll do whatever they can to help out.”

While the class’s effectiveness is based on peer reviewed studies regarding the use of art in recovery programs, Liz and Codie have seen the changes first hand.

“[Veterans] always come out happy,” said Liz. “I think it surprises them, and some of them do some really good work.”

“The first time they go through it, they kind of have a lot of anxiety, don't really want to do it, don't think they're creative,” said Codie. “And after they get a chance to experience it, they realize that they can be creative…  I definitely see a reduction of anxiety and just kind of more confidence in themselves over time.”

And Joshua couldn’t agree more. Art allows him to get into his own little world, forget about his problems, and just focus on the project at hand. “It’s been peaceful,” he said. “I plan on doing it more because I find that it helps me calm my nerves.”

Liz and Codie are looking to expand the class to other parts of the George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center in the near future. The program is always looking for supplies for the class. If you would like to donate, contact Voluntary Services at (801) 584-1241.

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