At first, when presented with coloring books, Army Veteran Giles Diggs, 60, thought of a million things he’d rather do. “I wasn’t interested in coloring books,” said Diggs, whose life changed due to illness and injury in ways that caused him to be unable to focus on or sit with anything for any length of time. “But I did it anyway.”
What began as a chore offered by a nurse at the VA Maryland Health Care System changed Diggs’ mindset and his life. “Due to my illness, at the time, I couldn’t sit or concentrate for long. Over the course of three to four months of coloring, I felt good that I could complete something, even if it were a picture.”
Diggs found satisfaction in completing a coloring project, and he also began deeply appreciating the sight of all the colors available to him, of other people’s art, and the fact art gave him another form of self-expression. “It helped me. It helped me to be patient, to not rush, to sit and focus on something. The coloring, the art helped me to open up by doing something good for my soul.”
Diggs is not alone. He is among a small cohort of Veterans at the VA Maryland Health Care System who are using art as a means of expression on the road to recovery. Veterans in the Mental Health Intensive Case Management (MHICM) program and the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center (PRRC) program at the Baltimore Annex have worked closely with Sharon Reese RN and Kimberly Robinson-McCray, RN, to advance their wellness goals. In the MHICM program, they developed goals that aided Veterans’ re-integration into the community by using adult coloring books as a means of expression and a way to structure leisure time. Veterans report a sense of hope and accomplishment — critical to the recovery process.
In the PRRC program, Robinson-McCray, RN, facilitated a group project in which Veterans produce a Recovery Mural. Group activities build upon the teamwork skills — a strength for Veterans, especially those struggling with putting their distress into words or who have difficulty engaging in other activities. “Veterans with these struggles gravitate naturally to art as a means of self-expression, especially when they are supported by a clinician and a therapeutic environment,” said Cynthia Johnson, MS, RN, chief nurse in the Mental Health Service.
“The coloring helped me to open up by doing something good for my soul.”
Driven by nursing leadership as part of an evidence-based nursing intervention with the goal of improving their effort to better meet Veterans’ needs, the art projects were initially supported by Volunteer Services which donated materials. Subsequently, Johnson submitted a grant application to the Whole Health Initiative that was approved, and the interventions will be further enhanced by the use of music and aromatherapy. “It was a great team effort which was built upon the idea of improving patient care in a creative and individualized way consistent with our commitment to Whole Health and patient and family centered care,” said Johnson, adding that “soothing music often sets a mood for Veterans to feel safe in being creative and expressive.”
Said Diggs, “The coloring opened a whole world to me. I wasn’t interested in art before but now I appreciate it as another way to express myself, and it made me interested in seeing what others did.”
The art projects demonstrate the Whole Health Initiative in action. “The Whole Health Initiative helps to foster a healing environment that provides personalized care for each veteran. “Similar projects are now taking place on the inpatient units,” said Rosemary Jomidad, BS, RN, assistant nurse manager of Outpatient Mental Health. The Whole Health approach draws upon the Veterans’ innate capacity to heal when empowered to create their personal health plan in conjunction with clinicians.
“The art projects were incorporated into the treatment plans of the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center at the Baltimore Annex which is an outpatient program that provides mental health services,” said Robinson-McCray. Veterans completed the mural project at the PRRC when they attended group therapy programs. “By talking about the mural, they begin to talk about the health issues that challenge them and learn that they aren’t alone struggling with the issues and that others in the group provide peer support,” she added.
“The adult coloring books are used as a means for helping Veterans in the community, those for whom it is difficult to leave their homes because of their illnesses,” said Reese. Upon conclusion of participation in the program, Veterans may participate in a field trip accompanied by staff to a local museum or another program of interest.
For Diggs, it brought him more than he expected. “I never thought I’d be interested in art, in what other people draw and paint, but now I feel fulfilled.”
Author: Rosalia Scalia, Public Affairs Specialist, Baltimore VA Medical Center