On May 23, US president Donald Trump revealed his government budget proposal for fiscal year 2018. The military initially appeared to be a clear winner in his financial calculus: The proposal would increase defense spending by $469 billion over the next decade and also augment funding for the Veterans Administration, including an additional $29 billion for the Choice program, which enables veterans to receive treatment from private doctors.
But it’s not quite that simple. In his proposal, Trump also seeks to defund the National Endowment for the Arts. At first glance, eradicating this cultural hub may seem to have little to do with the military—but giving soldiers access to the arts is one of the most effective ways we can help them both prepare and recover from the demands of their duty. In eliminating this agency, Trump would be doing a huge disservice to them and to the veterans he promised to support.
The NEA provides arts grants in every single Congressional district of the US, with 36% of grants going to underserved populations, including military veterans. Soldiers and veterans, like the rest of us, greatly benefit from this access, since data has shown that art makes us healthier, happier, smarter, and more socially engaged. Plus, the economic benefits are clear: Calculations by the RAND Corporation show that evidence-based arts treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression could save the US as much as $1.7 billion in healthcare costs, or more than $1,000 per veteran.
The advantages go far beyond mental-health and economics: Creative-arts therapy has been shown to foster a healthier, more resilient military, from training through rehabilitation. Since 2011, the NEA has partnered with the Department of Defense to provide arts therapy for service members with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and its accompanying mental-health issues. The therapy was so successful that in fiscal year 2016, Congress appropriated a $1.9 million budget increase for the NEA for the specific purpose of expanding art therapy’s reach. The program, now called Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network is an integral part of treatment for active-duty service members, veterans, and reservists. It promotes what the military calls “The Four R’s”: readiness, resilience, retention, and reintegration.
The benefits of arts therapy are particularly striking at the “resilience” stage, where it is used to combat physical and psychological trauma. Research has shown that arts therapy helps military patients suffering from PTSD and TBI to communicate their experiences, which allows medical staff to better understand their conditions and pinpoint more effective treatments. Patients also note improved memory, sleep, pain levels, cognitive function, and ability to face emotional difficulties, as well as reduced stress, depression, and anxiety, and increased positive emotions.
While individual accounts paint a powerful picture of art therapy’s healing potential, surveys conducted by the National Intrepid Center of Excellence suggest that it’s also effective at scale, with 85% of military patients saying art is helpful to their healing. Family members who participate in arts therapy also note benefits similar to those experienced by their loved ones, including reduced depression and anxiety, and improved sleep. As more than five million military families provide care for someone with TBI or PTSD, this effect is significant. Arts therapy can also serve as a protective factor in suicide prevention, which is nothing short of crucial, since an average of 20 veterans take their own lives each day.
The advantages are apparent at other stages beyond “resilience,” too. For example, by reducing the stress inherent in military life, arts therapy promotes “readiness”: Soldiers who are better equipped to manage their own stress are better prepared for the weighty job of maintaining national security. Arts therapy also serves as a “de-stigmatized access point” for the mental-health treatment so crucial for military “retention” and social “reintegration.” This is essential, since half of soldiers with PTSD neglect to seek help, fearing admission of mental illness could jeopardize their careers. Similarly, a survey by the RAND Corporation showed that more than one third of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan believed their colleagues would have diminished faith in them if they found out they had sought treatment. These fears are particularly strong for soldiers seeking to secure or maintain a security clearance.
For all of these reasons, maintaining our government’s already minimal investment in the arts could help support the health and mental stability of those who have fought so hard to protect our country.