Soldiers Commemorating Remembrance Day in Afghanistan, 2012.

Soldiers Commemorating Remembrance Day in Afghanistan, 2012. Copyright Defence Images under the Open Government Lic

Carving a New Approach to PTSD

Psychologists use aboriginal art techniques to create effective community‑based therapy programs.


Today, we remember the men and women that died serving our country:

Over 61,000 Canadians in World War I.

Over 44,000 Canadians in World War II.

516 Canadians in the Korean War.

158 Canadians in Afghanistan.

But for many veterans, the war doesn’t end despite coming home.  For many, a new war begins – a war with their thoughts and their memories.  And often, this is a war that they can’t win.

Veterans are more prone to suicide

More military personnel and veterans die by suicide than from any other cause, including combat.  This can happen during service or even years after coming home.  Just last week the Globe and Mail reported that 54 veterans who served in Afghanistan committed suicide since returning home.  That’s slightly more than a third of the number that died in service.

With its focus on men’s mental health initiatives, it seems fitting that Movember should encompass Remembrance Day.  Last week I talked about the Man Up Against Suicide program.  This week, I want to talk about another Movember funded project geared specifically towards veterans: Man/Art/Action.

A tribute

The Veterans Tribute Pole stands inside Canada House in London, England, carved with the names and ranks of 158 soldiers that never made it back from Afghanistan.  If you look closely, you can see that the pole is made of two caskets covered in satellite images of Kandahar and stacked one on top of the other.

The pole was carved by a group of vets with the instruction of master carver Rick Harry (Xwalactun) as part of the Man/Art/Action dual art project: a collaboration between Vancouver-based artist Foster Eastman, the University of British Columbia, and the Veterans Transition Network.  The vets are also participating in “Contact! Unload”, a series of vignettes demonstrating the challenges faced by vets after active duty.

“The purpose for it is to help bring the people together, share their stories, and also be able to heal from that” says Xwalactun.

Veterans carve a tribute pole to help foster communication and support

Talking while doing

Marvin Westwood is the lead researcher involved with the project.  Marvin is a Professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of British Columbia and the founder of the Veterans Transition Network (VTN).  As part of VTN, he has developed an action-based model for counseling geared specifically towards men.  This type of counseling involves doing things instead of just sitting and talking, to destigmatize and de-medicalize the process.

Things like carving a monument to commemorate their experiences.  During the carving process the men get to talk, share their stories, and essentially participate in a group therapy session.  Men are more likely to open up while working with their hands.  They are also more likely to speak out if they think it will help other men.

Though caskets symbolize death, for these men, this project may be a chance for new life.

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Malgosia Pakulska is a freelance science writer, speaker, and blogger. She completed her PhD in Professor Molly Shoichet’s lab studying drug delivery systems for spinal cord regeneration after injury. She is still passionate about research and wants to share that excitement with the public. When she is not in the lab, she is experimenting in the kitchen and blogging about it at Smart Cookie Bakes.