Using Art as a Self-Regulating Tool in a War Situation: A Model for Social Workers Academic Article uri icon


  • Social workers in war situations are often appointed to emergency roles in a professional capacity that may cause them to witness others being threatened, or be threatened themselves, with death or injury. War thus constitutes an intense, challenging situation for social workers, adding exposure to direct risk of personal harm to the secondary trauma and burnout that is the part of the general context of social work (Cohen, Gagin, & Peled-Avram, 2006; Gagin, Cohen, & Peled-Avram, 2009). Within this high-stress situation, social workers need accessible and simple tools with which to express, identify, and cope with their own stress and then address the stress of their clients. This study had three goals: (1) to portray the experience of social workers living in war through artworks, (2) to identify stress and resilience factors in their artworks, and (3) to develop a model for intervention social work professionals during these situations, which then can be used as a model of intervention with distressed populations during wartime. LITERATURE SURVEY Exposure to war is a major potentially traumatic event for civilian populations in general and women in particular (Ashford & Huet-Vaughn, 1997; Levy & Sidel, 1997). According to the DSM (4th ed., text rev.), symptoms of acute stress disorder (ASD) resulting from such traumatic events include intense fear, helplessness, or horror; a subjective sense of numbing, detachment, or absence of emotional responsiveness and a reduction in awareness of the surroundings (for example, "being in a daze"); de-realization; depersonalization; and dissociative amnesia (that is, inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Symptoms of anxiety or increased arousal (for example, difficulty sleeping, irritability, poor concentration, hypervigilence, exaggerated startle response, motor restlessness) are also prevalent. These distressing symptoms can be amplified by the need to respond and intervene with clients who are themselves highly stressed (Saakvitne, 2002). Thus, both primary and secondary trauma can take their toll on social workers in wartime (Shamai & Ron, 2009). Yet the working contracts of many social workers, such as those who work in hospitals in a war zone, require them to be on call and on duty during wartime (Dekel, Hantman, Ginzburg, & Solomon, 2007; Gagin et al., 2009). In Israel, most social workers are female, and they are often mothers. A previous study conducted in Israel among mothers during the second Intifada period of chronic security threats from terrorist attacks and bombings found that mothers rated their anxiety for their children and partners significantly higher than anxiety for themselves (Cwikel, Segal-Engelchin, & Mendlinger, 2010). Interventions for social workers in crisis situations mainly consist of structured meetings of group support (Mitchell & Everly, 2000; J. R Wilson & Sigman, 2000), supervision (Cohen et al., 2006), and coping-skills acquisition (Cohen & Gagin, 2005). Cwikel, Kacen, and Slonim-Nevo (1993) developed a stress-consultation group intervention for social workers in wartime based on creating a time and space for reflection on the stress and resilience factors that affected both social workers and their clients. However, research findings are inconclusive as to the effectiveness of emotional sharing, ventilation, and information provision in alleviating symptoms of stress (Eid, Johnson, & Weisaeth, 2001; Kenardy et al., 1996). The inadequacy of verbal methods, and the impracticality of long-term supervision meetings and processes occurring within the acute period of the actual war and immediate aftermath, point to the need to search for additional methods of self-care for social workers in war situations. The creative arts, such as drawing and sculpting, have been cited as especially effective in counteracting the stress of war situations in that they incorporate different levels of intervention in treating clients suffering from trauma (Hass-Cohen, 2003; Hass-Cohen & Carr, 2008; Klingman, Koenigsfield, & Markman, 1987; Mallay, 2002), such as combining the senses through observing, touching, and manipulating art materials and addressing the symbolic manifestation of traumatic experience while also creating a cognitive hermeneutic zone for more positive reinterpretations of perceptions of traumatic events (Allen, 1993; Appleton, 2001; Perry, Pollard, Blakely, Baker, & Vigilante, 1995; Pifalo, 2002; Sarid & Huss, 2010). …

publication date

  • January 1, 2010