Nothing About Us Without Us: The Creative Expressions and Wellness Center

Veterans seeking treatment at the Creative Expressions and Wellness Center (CEWC) are more than just patients, they are partners in their own care and co-owners of the Center.

Teary-eyed and silent, the eight women — all who struggle with both addiction and PTSD — read the words that they wrote together, sharing their experiences of being Veterans:

A female veteran’s life is never really dim for though we’re thin in numbers, our strengths lie deep within. Our path’s not always easy nor paved upon the way, the challenges are endless and yet we seek no praise. Rising for our nation, the country that we love, we pride ourselves to fight for the flag that flies above. History once questioned our needs to be a part, truly under-estimating the fight in a woman’s heart.

“Nothing about us without us” is the guiding principle for the Creative Expressions and Wellness Center (CEWC), located at the VA Boston’s Brockton campus. The Center offers support to Veterans struggling with mental health challenges, fostering-self appreciation and relationship skills as well as developing leadership skills necessary for successful reintegration to community life. As their motto suggests, the Veterans seeking treatment at the Center are more than just patients, they are partners in their own care and co-owners of the Center. The Veterans guide the Center, from performing needs assessments to providing their perspective and recommendations on therapeutic programming. Every decision at the Center is made collaboratively, with the intentional goal of responding to and improving the Veterans’ experience.

Recognizing the need for treatment that Veterans would want, enjoy and return to, the Center’s offerings are more creative and engaging than traditional talk therapy. Through the Center’s art studio, Veterans are able to engage in creative treatment options, such as writing, painting, sculpting, and creating music. The Center recently expanded services to include “whole health services” such as yoga and Reiki.

Veterans who struggled with other treatments have thrived at the Center, creating beautiful art and finding healing in the process. One Veteran, who struggled with a serious mental illness, was catatonic when he arrived at the Center. Through the creative writing therapy, he was able to share his experience in Vietnam, a key development that seemed unlikely after 14 years of more traditional mental health therapy. Veterans who frequented inpatient psychiatric wards have gained leadership skills, and go on to teach other Veterans their artistic trades. A recently graduate from the Center has since pursued a certification in peer support and presents alongside Center staff at conferences about his recovery. Another Veteran, who struggled to leave his bed when he arrived, now bounces from leading sessions for other Veterans to attending the Center’s Steering Committee meetings, “The Center saved my life, it’s what gets me out of bed every morning”.

The CEWC partners with supporting organizations and institutions to provide better care and more options for its Veterans, including the National Association of Mental Illness. The Center’s art studio collaborates with Lesley University’s Expressive Therapies and LHHC programs as well as well as the Boston College School of Social Work. In addition, the Center has sponsored a traveling mixed-media writing and art project featuring Veterans’ artwork for several large-scale public events in the greater Boston area. The Center most recently developed a mental health anti-stigma photography campaign called “Silent No More”.

The Center and Veterans are working to expand services to meet the demands of the mentally ill Veteran population in need of alternatives to talk therapy through the VA Innovators Network Accelerator Program. Last fall, Secretary Bob McDonald announced the launch of the VA Innovators Network to support VA employees to test new ideas and partner with others to improve the way we serve Veterans. The VA Center for Innovation initiated the program by embedding innovation pilots in several medical centers to engage employees in supporting the MyVA transformation by creating the best possible experience and care for Veterans and their families.

To accomplish this, new full-time positions were established; ‘innovation specialists’ now operate at eight VA Medical Centers across the United States, including the Boston VA. As part of the VA Innovators Network, the Center has received Seed grant funding to help supply additional art supplies and furniture, add staff, and host workshops for staff about alternative therapeutic practices, such as trauma-informed yoga and various creative expression alternatives. Veterans drove the decision to update the furniture and floors of the Center, and design a more comforting and creative space for others.

Earlier this year group of Veterans, mostly burly Vietnam Veterans, asked the Center to provide Latch Hooking kits and sessions, a request that took staff by surprise. Since then, the group of Veterans ‘hooking’ at the Center has continued to increase. During a session, deep in concentration as he knitted threads together, one Veteran commented — unaware of the significance — that “I used to go to the hospital, but now, when I’m at home and experience symptoms, I hook. This hooking keeps me out of the hospital”. Working with The Center and his fellow Veterans, he designed a treatment that worked for him, and other Veterans.

“Nothing About Us Without Us”. The Center’s goal is humble, to empower Veterans by working with them as partners to design the care they need, to achieve the goals they set.

Grishelda Hogan is a Serious Mental Illness Section Chief at the Boston VA Medical Center. Abigail Hevert is an MSW Trainee at the Brockton VA Medical Center.