It is undoubtedly one of the more unusual methods designed to help ease the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, but that doesn't mean it isn't effective. The papier-mâché masks Melissa Walker, an art therapist and coordinator of healing arts with the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, asks veterans to make after returning stateside from Iraq and Afghanistan are vivid, expressive creations.
"It's actually the first art directive they're introduced to as they come through the program," Walker told The Daily Beast. "These are servicemembers that sometimes have trouble verbalizing what they're struggling with and these masks, along with all the artwork [they] create, help to make their invisible wounds visible."
Representing their experiences in combat and their military identities, the masks are incredibly evocative. One described by The Daily Beast is wound with razor wire and its lips sealed by a silver lock, while another succumbs to the pressure of a tightening vice marked with the acronym PTSD.
The veterans' creations have made such an impact that the National Endowment for the Arts has decided to fund an in-depth look at 400 of the masks at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Girija Kaimal, an assistant professor in Drexel's Department of Creative Art Therapies, told DrexelNOW that the masks have helped to create a bond between returning veterans.
"For some service members in the program, the masks become a 'visual community,'" Kaimal told the university's paper. "They see the masks and say, 'I'm not alone.'"
With so many veterans struggling to explain their experiences to families, friends and doctors in their life after service, the masks provide an outlet that doesn't require words.
"A lot of research will tell you that when you're in a traumatic experience, the part of the brain that controls speech shuts down," Kaimal relayed to The Daily Beast. "So having a nonverbal way – such as art – to communicate is key to understanding what they're going through."