Can creative arts projects help people deal with trauma from personal or group conflict?

Role of creative activities and projects in helping recovery from trauma due to personal or group conflict was a strong theme of 2023 Creative Brain Week

“Creativity is a pathway to hope. It enhances empathy and compassion. It changes emotions and by generating and enhancing emotions, behaviours change and how we care for people changes,” according to Brian Lawlor, Professor of Old Age Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and geriatric psychiatrist at St James’s Hospital, Dublin.

He made these profound remarks at the closing event of Creative Brain Week in Trinity College in March. The annual gathering – now in its second year – brings together international researchers at the Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI) – a jointly funded initiative of TCD and the University of California in San Francisco to share their research and explore brain health in innovative ways.

The role of creative activities and projects to help people recover from trauma associated with personal or group conflict was a strong theme of the 2023 Creative Brain Week.

Using the arts in healthcare is not new, but often creative projects can be undervalued in a medical model focused on diagnosing symptoms and treating illnesses.


“It’s about what we are measuring and how we are measuring it. If we are only measuring deficits, we are missing most of the values of artistic interventions. There is no strong evidence that music will prevent dementia but it does other things that are equally interesting,” says Christopher Bailey, co-lead of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) first ever arts and health laboratory (of which more later), who was in Dublin for the gathering.

During Creative Brain Week, various speakers presented powerful examples of how being involved in music, drama, dance or visual art activities can improve physical and psychological health while building valuable social connections among those who participate.

“The arts can bring a feeling of playfulness to places you’d not expect to find them,” says Nils Fietje, of the WHO’s regional office in Copenhagen. He was referring specifically to the work of the clown doctors from Red Noses International at emergency accommodation centres in Moldova following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

It’s about truth, healing and reconciliation through arts and storytelling

—  Rachel Clarke-Hughes, Playhouse Theatre, Derry

Karin Diamond, playwright and artistic director of Re-Live (, a life stories arts initiative in Wales, spoke about projects which have brought psychological healing and wellbeing to war veterans, people with dementia and the terminally ill.

One such project is Coming Home: Veterans’ Mental Health Stories, a powerful comic book created by Re-Live to help former soldiers deal with traumatic experiences in combat zones.

One former British army soldier, Graham, spoke about how the comic-making process helped him deal with his personal trauma due to his role as a British soldier during riots in Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland in 1974.

“I had hidden the experience for 30 years and then had counselling and therapy for 10 years, but going back to Long Kesh prison was the beginning of a long road of recovery. The comic-making process validated my story that I had never been able to share with other veterans,” he explained.

On a physiological level, Graham said involvement in the creative process resulted in the lessening of a debilitating physical shake and the disappearance of a chronic rash he had on his chest. The Coming Home comic books are available in libraries, comic shops and some prisons.

Diamond said that when people are well supported, they can revisit painful memories – that previously they couldn’t get past – to allow healing to take place. Re-Live also makes theatre with people with dementia, their families and carers in which people speak about their everyday realities of dementia in front of a live audience. “The diagnosis of dementia is a life-changing moment; if you don’t process that, you are stuck,” Diamond added.

Rachel Clarke-Hughes, head of engagement at the Playhouse Theatre in Derry City, spoke about how the theatre works with victims and survivors of The Troubles so that they can share their personal testimonies on stage with live audiences. “It’s about truth, healing and reconciliation through arts and storytelling,” she said – explaining how friendships between former IRA members and members of the Ulster Defence Regiment can shift things towards peace in divided communities.

David Cotterrell, an installation artist who works in conflict zones, explained that as a British observer during the Afghanistan war, he saw how “random moments of violence can have an affect on young people’s bodies for the rest of their lives”. Using photography, installation and videos, he has highlighted the legacy effects of the “empathetic failure” during wars. He says the role of arts in conflict zones is also “to embrace and address criticisms of international policy and institutions”.

So many people get antipsychotic drugs thrown at them and are brokenhearted. But, it’s about meeting them where they are at and keeping open to what’s new

—  Medical anthropologist Dana Walrath

Creative Brain Week also was an opportunity for some of the 100 Atlantic Fellows for Equity in Brain Health at the GBHI to meet and share research in neuroscience.

The world premiere screening of a new documentary, Keys Bags Names Words, gave the audience a tremendous insight into the dementia journey for different families. Developed from the GBHI oral history project, hear/say, it elucidated the personal stories of people who are ageing with and without dementia.

Speaking at the film’s world premiere in Dublin, director Cynthia Stone said her aim was “to capture the difficult and traumatic reality of dementia, but also the beauty and love and intensity”.

Stone hopes the film can be shown in community centres and schools, at film festivals and on television channels. Anyone interested in the dementia narrative moving from what she described as “fear and hopelessness to hope and action” might also be interested in the hear/say books, a collection of stories about ageing, dementia, art, work and life which are also available as videos on

In the film, artist and medical anthropologist Dana Walrath spoke about how dementia transformed her relationship with her mother. “So many people get antipsychotic drugs thrown at them and are brokenhearted. But, it’s about meeting them where they are at and keeping open to what’s new,” said Walrath in the documentary. Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass, the graphic memoir of Walrath’s experience of her mother’s journey through dementia, explores this relationship creatively.

Keys Bags Names Words – which is available on demand for free screening – also includes powerful footage of the impact engagement with dance, music, theatre and painting has for people living with dementia and their families/carers.

The WHO’s new arts and health lab aims to amplifies scientific research into how the arts can improve health and wellbeing so that it can be further integrated into mainstream healthcare.

Launched in New York in February 2023, the Jameel Arts & Health lab is the first major arts and health initiative in the history of the WHO. Based between New York University’s Steinhardt School and the WHO’s regional office for Europe in Copenhagen, the lab will highlight arts and health research to promote the integration of the arts into mainstream care “We don’t just want to treat people’s illnesses, we want people to live full lives,” Bailey added.

Initial projects include looking at music’s effects on mothers with postnatal depression; the potential of cultural archives to promote post-conflict mental health recovery, and the effectiveness of the arts in dementia care. There will also be a focus on the importance of arts projects for displaced people, host communities and humanitarian care workers.

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment