The image of a soldier is someone who is brave, strong and dependable. Less visible is an ailment that plagues the military community: post-traumatic stress disorder.
As mental health is increasingly discussed in the news and throughout U.S. communities, many healthcare practitioners are going beyond traditional forms of treatment and are looking into holistic ways to approach PTSD and addiction in service members.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that complementary and alternative medicine use is more common in active duty soldiers than in the veteran population.
“If I have to go to war, I need to know if someone next to me is someone I can count on,” said Gisela Carter, clinical chief at the Addiction Medicine Intensive Outpatient Program, or AMIOP. The program was launched by the William Beaumont Army Medical Center this summer.
“Those are the goals we have here,” Carter continued.
Through the program, complementary medicine is often offered to service members who have turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with traumatic experiences.
Carter said that often, soldiers will have reservations about methods like meditation, yoga and battlefield acupuncture, in which small needles are placed on several pressure points along the ears. But after a while, many enjoy such sessions, she added.
Major Joel Bush, medical director of AMIOP, said these forms of therapy teach the patient, “how to live.”
“It teaches them how to find balance in every part of their lives,” Bush said. “We need to teach them not just to be sober, but how to live their lives. We try to point them away from the unhealthy practices.”
The addiction program often works with the Behavioral Health Intensive Outpatient Program, or BHIOP, next door. The latter program combines standardized treatments with art therapy. During a recent session, patients were given a small box containing cutout quotes they could use to express their emotions. Another activity included painting masks.
“[Art is] a significant form of expression and shows how they really feel,” said Graciela Pinon, a marriage and family therapist at BHIOP. “Then on other days, [patients] receive psychotherapy education, which teaches them how to cope, and occupational therapy.”
Therapy in the civilian community
Outside of Fort Bliss, local licensed therapists offer more unique ways to help service members with PTSD, anxiety and depression.
Namaste Tribe, a new facility located at a two-story house on Mesa Street, offers the military community a retreat through traditional and non-traditional therapy.
Brenda Amador Schulz, a licensed professional counselor and certified yoga instructor who owns the studio, plays sound bowls and other instruments for her clients. A practice known as sound healing, she tells her patients to focus on their breathing during the therapeutic session.
“The ultimate goal of sound healing is to find relaxation for the client so that the client finds peace of mind,” Schulz said. “It heals at a cellular level.”
Schulz said she uses tuning forks, Tibetan singing bowls and finger cymbals in the key of “F,” a sound connected to the heart chakra. Chakras are known in the holistic medicine community as seven energy centers within your body, ranging from the “crown” to the “root.”
Family members of veterans and active duty soldiers often use sound therapy as well, Schulz said. The method is coupled with positive psychology, yoga, aromatherapy and mindfulness sessions that allow clients to become aware of the present moment and learn coping skills.
“Positive psychology and meditation doesn’t focus so much on the background of what happened to you, but more about, ‘let’s heal that so you can be good in the present moment,’” Schulz said.
At the Upper Valley’s Compadres Therapy, executive director Joy Ferguson said the center provides equine-assisted psychotherapy for adults overcoming mental health issues. Therapy must be coupled with a licensed therapist and a horse specialist for the safety of clients and the horse.
The center’s staff focuses on overcoming the patients’ obstacles and helping them understand their emotions. An exercise may include navigating the horse through columns in the arena.
“The horses really help because the client might associate the columns with obstacles in their life, and one task may be navigating the horse without a lead through each obstacle,” Ferguson said. “But in order to ask the horse to go with them, they have to regulate their emotions so the horse can trust them. They have to communicate effectively with verbal and nonverbal language.
“Horses give instant feedback, so if the person doesn’t regulate his or her emotions and isn’t clear with what they are communicating, then the horse isn’t going to go with them.”
That activity then transfers over to real-world situations, Ferguson suggested.
Aaron Foster, a volunteer at the equine facility, said that as a veteran who has PTSD, helping the clients and tending to the horses helps him stay calm.
“I’ve been around horses all my life, so this is a calm and relaxing environment for me,” he said. “Horses are very perceptive; if you are nervous around a horse, the horse will pick up on that. So you have to stay in a calm and relaxed state of mind, and then their calmness transfers over to you.”
Ferguson said because the feedback they receive from the horse is immediate, a client’s progression in therapy may be a lot quicker than in a traditional setting.
As with anyone curious about methods outside of traditional therapy, it’s important for service members and veterans to consult their doctors about exploring different options. The military health system’s use of complementary and alternative medicine suggests that holistic approaches could create lasting positive results for those living with PTSD and other ailments.