Wilderness Therapy for Veterans
By Marine Corp Veteran and Therapist Eric LaPaugh MA, LLPC
Access to the outdoors is proven to have a positive impact on mental health and physical well-being for our veterans, the healing effects of nature can be especially powerful. Wildnerness therapy provides space for veterans to process their thoughts, consider their next steps in life, and gradually reintegrate into the world.
Veterans spending time on a wilderness adventure has all the best parts of military life, a small, tight-knit group, testing their skill sets and themselves, and relying on each other in a “dangerous” environment to accomplish a common goal. Civilian life, especially relationships with friends and family, can not be approached with the same high-speed problem-solving skills that we learned in the military.
Wilderness therapy offers a unique approach to helping soldiers reintegrate into their normal lives with the goal of mitigating the long-term effects of PTSD. Wilderness therapy uses the power of nature to help heal the invisible wounds of war, and the results of their approach are incredible. Wilderness therapy can facilitate a veteran’s reintegration into society, restoring their faith in humanity, and building a network of life-long friendships and relationships.
Outdoor recreational activities can provide powerful therapeutic and healing benefits as well as camaraderie for veterans struggling with combat-related injuries or post-traumatic stress.
Treatment with therapies designed to help with PTSD, (such as exposure therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, stress inoculation, and others), can often span over the course of months or years and involve working one-on-one with a therapist during weekly sessions.
While these treatments can be effective and useful, many veterans do not prefer them due to side effects and the time commitment required to achieve results. A bill introduced to Congress on May 1 could make outdoor recreation an official treatment option for veterans suffering from mental health disorders. It’s a huge opportunity for vets—and our public lands.
This year the VA will spend $8.6 billion on mental health services for its seven million patients. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, nearly 400,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD. Studies show that outdoor-recreation therapy is effective at decreasing the symptoms of PTSD and helping veterans reintegrate with civilian life. For veterans, outdoor recreation can also carry less stigma than other types of therapy and is, therefore, more likely to attract participants. On top of all that, outdoor recreation may prove less expensive than medication-based treatment.
Dacher Keltner, a professor at UC Berkeley psychology department, conducted a study of 180 military veterans who were dealing with PTSD signs and symptoms. The veterans in the study went on a 1 or 2-day whitewater rafting trip in California on the American River. The participants camped along the river, shared meals together and sat around a fire. After the trip, participants reported a 30 percent reduction in their PTSD signs and symptoms and a 10 percent increase in reported happiness and overall well being, happiness, and social connection. Nature decreases the trauma response, improves cognitive function, and promotes healing.
In 1901 John Muir wrote, “that wilderness is a necessity, and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers but as fountains of life.” Now, researchers are finding evidence to explain the feeling. The last few years have brought forest bathing and nature deficit disorder to the mainstream, as stressed-out city folks and kids turn to the wilds for renewed focus, healing, and relaxation.
Though scientists and social workers haven’t unlocked why nature works the way it does, it seems the next major advance in mental health treatment is just as likely to come out of a public forest as a private lab. But with research ongoing, we might be on the cusp of putting a number on the value of wilderness therapy.