What happens when a veteran becomes stuck even after attending regular counseling sessions to cope with persistent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms? My colleagues and I at the Menlo Park Veterans Administration Health Care System (VAHCS) implemented a new program several years ago that used art as a therapeutic intervention to process recovery themes for veterans with a mental health disorder. The Veteran Photo Recovery Project engages veterans with a mental health diagnosis such as PTSD to build a six image portfolio of photographs that create a narrative about a personal recovery theme. During the six week workshop, veterans can use process of taking pictures to spark discussions with their peers about trauma, mental health challenges, and ways to sustain recovery. The experience of using images as a reflection tool has been beneficial for veterans from all recent war time periods and as one female veteran insightfully stated, “Repression is the problem. Expression is the cure.”
When Ming Lai of Humanist Films read about the Veteran Photo Recovery Project in 2013, he appreciated how powerful photographs can be to inspire change. When he learned that photography was being used to help heal veterans with PTSD, military sexual trauma, and other mental illnesses, he was deeply moved. He decided to make a feature documentary about U.S. military veterans from the Vietnam War to Operation Desert Storm to Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom who were using innovative therapeutic photography techniques to treat their mental health issues.
After two years of dedicated work to interview veterans and providers involved with the program, “Visions of Warriors” is now in post-production. The funds acquired from the Stanford Medicine & the Muse Program grant will be used to help pay for expensive post-production costs. Most of all, this grant will help the director and his associates to finish this important project for veterans.
The co-founders of the Veteran Photo Recovery Project, Ming Lai, staff at Humanist Films, and I hope to raise awareness about the rise of veteran mental illness and the power of innovative photography therapy to treat it.