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Veterans At Home Learn Coping Skills Through The Arts

Without leaving the comfort of his Ocala apartment, Joshua Lawhorn, 28, is getting help with his memory problems by learning to play the guitar.

Lawhorn, who is still active-duty Army, is recovering from post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury after a couple of tours in Afghanistan. He is one of hundreds enrolled in the Telehealth Creative Arts Therapy program offered by the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center in Gainesville.

Diane Garrison Langston is Lawhorn’s music therapist at the Gainesville VA. She connects with him on a scheduled basis for 50-minute sessions that include more than learning new guitar chords.

Recently, they connected via video camera through the VA’s secure internet link. Langston sits in a ground-floor music therapy room at the massive VA complex and Lawhorn is more than an hour away in his living room.

They chat briefly. Lawhorn tells Langston about a video game design course he’s taking and that he cut his finger while cooking so playing guitar is difficult. So, he’s not practiced much.

“There is no requirement for how much he’s practiced,” Langston said. “This is not music lessons. It is music therapy. It’s not supposed to be a stressful thing.”

Lawhorn confessed that he would probably stop therapy if it “became a chore” or if he had to drive to Gainesville for sessions.

Learning to play the guitar is a good coping skill that helps with his lack of focus according to his music therapist.

“Not only is it great for finding gross motor movement because you have to strum,” Langston said. “It’s positive cognitive processing because they’re learning a new language.”

"I’m really able to express myself more and really tell what’s bothering me ... without having to get that feeling of being in a hospital or doctor’s office, where if you say the wrong thing, you’re going to get judged as ‘Oh my gosh, she’s severely depressed we need to give her some drugs,’ " said Darlinda Reaves.

Nationwide, the VA provides Telehealth services to more than 700,000 patients a year. And there are more than 40 different programs including Addiction Services, Women’s Healthcare and Pain Management.

But the Gainesville VA is the first to meld the Telehealth technology with Creative Arts Therapy offering music, movement and visual arts.

“I would say that the body of evidence is thinner than it is for other practices. But, you know, there are some indicators that different engagements in arts can lower your blood pressure can be good for your heart rate,” said Dr. Chuck Levy, Chief of the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Service at the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System.

Levy, who oversees the Gainesville Creative Arts Therapy program, has pushed it forward saying veterans can’t wait for all the research evidence.

The Gainesville VA has a 5-year grant to mentor other VA medical centers that want to develop Creative Arts Telehealth programs. It’s also working with Sara Kass through the National Endowment for the Arts’ Creative Forces program.

Kass is a retired Navy physician who saw first-hand the value of creative arts therapy in treating service members at the Walter Reed National Medical Center National Intrepid Center of Excellence.

“So often, what we need to do in helping patients with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury is understanding their story from their perspective. And the arts give us an opportunity to allow them to tell their story in ways that are different than traditional talk therapy,” Kass said.

Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Board-certified art therapist Heather Spooner, foreground, and Navy veteran Darlinda Reaves, computer image, use a Telehealth connection for their creative arts therapy session.

Traditional therapy didn’t help Gainesville VA patient, Darlinda Reaves, a 51-year-old Navy veteran and cancer survivor. She much prefers her visual art therapy from her home in Jacksonville more than a two-hour drive away.

“I find it more relaxing. I’m really able to express myself more and really tell what’s bothering me and what I’m going through without having to get that feeling of being in a hospital or doctor’s office where if you say the wrong thing you’re going to get judged as ‘Oh my gosh, she’s severely depressed we need to give her some drugs,’” Reaves said.

Reaves said she didn’t draw or paint before signing up with Gainesville art therapist Heather Spooner. But the veteran found power in communicating her feelings through her sketches.

Spooner said patients don’t need to have done art and if they’re feeling anxious about putting pencil to paper, she’ll use a simple exercise that doesn’t require the art to look like anything such as “pick a color and create a scribble to show how big their problem is.”

“And that can open up a conversation,” Spooner said. “So much of art therapy is about metaphor. So being able to relate to people on ways that are just not the way we think verbally. But there’s another level to how we perceive the world. We don’t always put clearly into words.”

Meanwhile, the Telehealth Creative Arts Therapy program is also expanding to 10 locations including Fort Hood, Texas, Camp Pendleton in California and Camp LeJeune in North Carolina.

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.