Second lady Karen Pence advocates art therapy for wounded warriors


(Photo: US Army)

Speaking with Second Lady Karen Pence during her recent visit to the Intrepid Spirit Center here, it’s apparent that championing art therapy is not just an initiative, but a passion.

Pence’s passion is driven by the human and scientific evidence of art therapy’s healing properties.

“People think its arts and crafts, but that’s not what art therapy is,” she said. “It is a mental health profession where a trained therapist uses art as their medium to help guide someone through the healing process.”

Power of Art Therapy

Pence first learned of the power of art therapy to help people heal a decade ago when she observed an art therapy program for kids with cancer. Since then, the second lady’s number one goal is to raise awareness of the unique form of therapy and how it benefits everyone from those battling cancer to those dealing with the invisible wounds of war.

Pence has partnered with the Creative Forces Military Healing Arts Network, a joint pro-arts initiative amongst the National Endowment for the Arts, the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs, which put creative arts therapies at the core of patient-centered care at Fort Hood and 10 other military medical facilities across the country.

As she travels across the nation advocating for art therapy, Pence said she is excited to meet active-duty soldiers and veterans who have embraced the therapy method and are thriving.

Her trip to Fort Hood included a tour of the Intrepid Spirit Center, an orientation to its Healing Arts program and a roundtable discussion with community leaders about the integration of art therapy in caring for service members.

“I hear a lot of stories about soldiers who initially don’t want to go into art therapy sessions because it doesn’t seem like the strong or tough thing to do,” Pence said. “But then I hear them talk about the tremendous relief and success they experience after art therapy. One soldier confided in me that he doesn’t go to that dark place anymore. Hearing success stories like that is powerful. It shows that art therapy saves lives.”

The idea of patients being apprehensive, but quickly becoming appreciative is all too familiar to the team at the Intrepid Spirit Center.

Effective Treatments

“Art and music therapy are effective treatment modalities that enhance the total treatment regimen to help the recovery process,” said Dr. Scot Engel, a clinical psychologist and director of the Intrepid Spirit. “When interweaving creative art therapies into our patient care plans we are improving clinical outcome for our warriors.”

Peter Buotte, healing arts and therapy coordinator, believes art therapy benefits the patient as it fosters a safe, supportive environment for therapeutic self-expression.

“At its deepest, the art therapy process can go beyond the verbal — and even beyond the recognizable image — in order to emotionally engage with the patient/client,” Buotte said.

Art and music therapy have been integral components of the Intrepid Spirit Center’s multi-disciplinary approach to restoring service member’s medical readiness for more than a year. The center is one component of the comprehensive system of behavioral health care offered for service members and their families at the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center here.

Before visiting Fort Hood, Mrs. Pence shared her message of art therapy significance with more than 140 local community arts professionals and military behavioral health care specialists at the Texas Creative Forces Arts and Military Conference held in Killeen, Texas. The conference aimed to support and grow collaborative relationships between local artists, arts organizations and military populations to help service members reintegrate after deployment.