It’s an alarming reality: Each day in the United States, 22 veterans or military members die from suicide.
But Dr. James Whitworth, a UCF associate professor of counseling and military social work — himself retired from the U.S. Air Force — is encouraged by new, alternative therapies that may help these troubled vetrans.
Here are five things to know about veteran mental health and some of the therapies being developed to treat them:
1. Roughly 15-25% of military veterans from most recent conflicts return with trauma responses or varying levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, \Whitworth says. It's a "normal response" to what these warriors are witnessing, he says.
During a deployment, military members work in a heightened "alarm" state, acutely aware of danger. But after they return home to a non-threat environment, the approach doesn't translate. “I’ve worked with, known so many warriors who experienced these responses," he said. “When we come alongside them to support them, we’re trying to tap into their strength.”
2. Whitworth says he sees promise in studies of new, alternative therapies, from equine therapy to providing canine companions for those military members who need help.
The McCormick Research Institute in St. Cloud serves individuals with special needs and veterans struggling with PTSD in programs known respectively as Heavenly Hooves and Horses & Heroes. The latter program, now in its eighth year, is a partnership with UCF College of Medicine for "investigating the benefits of trauma-informed, equine-assisted learning and therapies for US military Veterans with PTSD." Veterans take part in a three-hour session for 12 weeks.
3. Another promising therapy, per Whitworth, is pairing veterans with canines, such as what the K9 Partners for Patriots program does free of charge. Veterans can bring their own dog to be evaluated for 21 weeks of training, or are provided a service pup, hand-selected from a shelter by the nonprofit group. Prior to the start of classes, enrollees must attend three classes to demonstrate commitment to the program, according to the website.
“We’re just learning about the benefits (of alternative therapies) compared to other solid, research-based interventions," Whitworth says. "We see these service dogs, alternative treatments, as a bridge ... to help that veteran reconnect with other people around them. What we do know is veterans love these programs. They seek them out and stay in these programs."
4. After 30 years in law enforcement working as a deputy for Broward and Orange counties, plus two deployments to the Middle East, Army Reserve Capt. Jeff Snyder said he wasn't the same person he was before his service. He felt anti-social, like "a zombie at home," and would not leave the house.
But that changed 4 1/2 years ago when Snyder went online and found a dog listed by a seller in North Carolina. He drove to pick up Echo and enrolled in the K9 Partners for Patriots Program. Since then, Snyder says they've been inseparable. Echo keeps him focused and grounded, and when Snyder's adrenaline kicks in, the dog helps him to calm down.
He credits the dog and program with saving his life: "There was a situation, and it got out of control, and she saved my life. I can never repay her for it. She helps me get some of the bad stuff away. This program not only teaches you to work a dog, but gives you a lot of brotherhood."
Longtime #deputy Jeff Snyder grew up w/ dogs, but never realized how much he needed a service dog—until he returned from two deployments overseas.— Julie Gargotta (@juliegargotta) November 16, 2020
Suffering from #PTSD, he reached out to @k9p4p. He credits this beauty, Echo, with saving his life 🙏🏻 @MyNews13 #Veteran #Military pic.twitter.com/LS4X22iOZL
5. Right now, Congress is considering a bill called the PAWS Act, which would require the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to study the effectiveness of pairing vets with dogs in improving mental health. HR 43-05 passed the House unanimously, but still needs to pass in the Senate. The bill was proposed by Congressman Steve Stivers of Ohio, a brigadier general in the Ohio Army National Guard. He shared with us this statement on the bill's significance:
“A soldier under my command during Operation Iraqi Freedom recently told me what his service dog means to him: He was able to fly on a plane for the first time in 10 years and he took his fiancée to dinner. That is the impact this bill can have on the lives of our veterans. I’m incredibly proud that this bill passed the House unanimously, and I look forward to getting it signed into law so that our veterans can receive the care they need.”