The Difficult Return: Supporting returning veterans through an arts-based social leadership program

Balfour, M. (2016). The Difficult Return: Supporting returning veterans through an arts-based social leadership program. In Johnson G. & Dempster, N. (Eds.), Leadership in Diverse Learning Contexts (pp. 389-408). Switzerland: Springer


Background: ‘The Difficult Return’ is an Australian Research Council funded project exploring arts-based approaches to mental health literacy and resilience building with recently returned ex-military personnel and their families. The 3-year project is examining the transition from military to civilian life using a number of resources and techniques, one of which is the Veterans Transition Program (VTP). The VTP was originally developed by Professor Marvin Westwood in Vancouver, Canada before being introduced to Australia in 2012 as part of The Difficult Return project. The VTP is a group-based program that draws on psycho-educational and action-based approaches, including life review and drama enactments, to help returning veterans deal with career-related stressors and the reintegration into civilian society. The Difficult Return project has two main aims: 1) to observe and analyse the use of therapeutic enactments as a key element of the VTP, and 2) to explore its transferability to a different cultural context.

Method: The VTP is a 10-day residential program, run intensively from 9am to 9pm. It includes five phases: 1) Preprogram assessment and preparation (psycho-education, teaching on PTSD, and communication skills), 2) Group building (life review and communication skills), 3) Enactment, 4) Sharing, reconnection, and closure, and 5) Postprogram integration and transfer. The process for analysing the drama enactments involved a range of measures and approaches. Standard pre-post scales of trauma, depression, and anxiety were used (e.g. Beck Depression Inventory), as well as participant interviews, postprogram follow-up interviews, and the use of Interpersonal Process Recall with participants shortly after the enactment. All enactments were filmed, and then 1-2 days later, the participants would review the video session with a researcher.

Results: Many of the Australian VTP participants have gained considerable confidence and optimism after the program. One of the most enduring supports has been the group members’ formally and informally maintaining contact with each other, helping each other out in the follow-up period as well as staying in touch with the research team. One aspect that could be improved would be greater inclusion and involvement with families and friends during all aspects of the process; this is something that is likely to be addressed in the Canadian VTP, as there are no definite plans to repeat the Australian program until evaluation and research has concluded.

Conclusions: This research has offered an opportunity to understand and value the ways in which performance processes can safely enable veterans and ex-servicemen dealing with trauma and career-related stress to confront and process their feelings of helplessness, providing them with a different relationship with the traumatic event.