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For Some Veterans, Underwater Adventures Bring Solitude And Therapeutic Benefits

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A growing number of programs try to treat PTSD by getting veterans into nature, even deep under the sea. But there's little scientific evidence that treatments like "scuba therapy" work.

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Speaker 1: 00:00 A growing number of programs around the country are trying to treat posttraumatic stress disorder by getting veterans into nature. Even deep under the sea. Stephanie Calambini of the American Homefront project reports on how scuba diving is helping some veterans heal. 38 year old Shawn Campbell is leading a scuba diving trip off the coast of Clearwater, Florida diver. Okay, Roger that joining for the trip, our air force veteran Bob Harris and his son Justin and active duty pilot who serves in San Antonio, Texas. Campbell briefs them on their dive site and underwater military Memorial called the circle of heroes.

Speaker 2: 00:40 This is very important to me as not only a local diver. Um, I am also the account that you're going to three cores. I'm a disabled veteran.

Speaker 1: 00:47 Campbell says transitioning back to civilian life after he was wounded in Iraq was tough for him. He says diving was an outlet for him to meditate and stay active because being underwater relieves him from the joint pain he feels on land. Now he's a dive master at narcosis scuba. The shop has a lot of military ties and take service members out whenever they can. Justin Harris got back from his fourth deployment a couple of weeks before the trip and says it was a much needed break from the stress of military life

Speaker 2: 01:19 are either flying all the time or deploying and away from our families. And so this opportunity to get away from that lifestyle, go down there, kind of forget about things that are going on in your life and just focused on the fish, the wildlife, and being under the water. It's a extremely relieving

Speaker 1: 01:34 narcosis doesn't claim to be a formal therapy group, but Campbell says it's not surprising. Other organizations are exploring the use of scuba to treat PTSD.

Speaker 3: 01:43 This is an opportunity to get out again, so maybe they're, yeah, they're not out around a ton of people, but they're still getting out [inaudible] they get become a part of a community that is a healthy community. Instead of going to like the bar or just drinking themselves into a comb at home or self-medicating in any way they could do something healthy and and meet like minded people and start living life again.

Speaker 1: 02:01 These nonprofits span the country from more obvious locations like Florida to places far from the coast like Phoenix and st Louis. They organize trips to dive in hotspots like The Bahamas and Mexico, typically for week long retreats. Some of these groups have licensed counselors and military chaplains who volunteer to focus on trauma and that is the ideal. That's retired army Colonel Kathy Platoni, a clinical psychologist in Dayton, Ohio who's written about military trauma. She says there's limited research on the benefits of nature-based therapies like scuba, but there's merit to them, but she says it's important to involve health professionals and even then they're not for everyone. It's very hard to put people in a challenging situation who do have PTSD or have been severely traumatized into something that may further traumatize them. For instance, getting in the water with a scuba tank may be terrifying for some people, and there are other barriers.

Speaker 1: 02:58 The VA or a health insurance company isn't going to cover scuba therapy and not everyone can pay for the expensive equipment and frequent dive trips out of pocket. Some support groups cover costs for their trips, but that's for one experience and Platoni says it can be really hard to maintain the benefits once the exotic adventure is over. So you have to have something that follows the scuba therapy, which would be individual psychotherapy group therapy, or just having some kind of contact with the other members of the group who have gone through this experience. Platoni says there is no gold standard of PTSD treatment. She says people need to be creative and cater care to the individual. So if you're like army veteran, Sean Campbell, and hanging out on the bottom of the ocean is what works best for you, go ahead and descend and enjoy your diet.

Speaker 4: 03:54 [inaudible]

Speaker 1: 03:54 I'm Stephanie Calambini in Tampa. This story was produced by the American Homefront project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans funding comes from the corporation for public broadcasting.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.