We’ve all seen the heart-opening videos of returning military personnel reuniting with their families or pets. But after the initial elation fades, reintegrating into a family or a job, as well as responding to the day-to-day demands of life, can be challenging for many veterans.
Among those serving since 2011, 44% report that reentry into civilian life was difficult. In addition to higher rates of mental health disorders, post-traumatic stress, and traumatic brain injury than the rest of the population, the suicide rate is 50% higher, and veterans are twice as likely to die of an opioid overdose as non-veterans.
In the face of these challenges, some veterans are supporting their transition home with complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies. Research indicates that there is a growing interest among veterans in CAM therapies, and one 2016 study showed that 61% of veterans reported they had tried at least one CAM therapy.
Alternative Therapies Inside the VHA
While 93% of all “parent facilities” in the Veterans Health Administration offer what the VHA now calls Complementary and Integrative Health (CIH) services, these services are a small percentage of the care the VHA offers and offerings can be different from one facility to the next.
According to the VHA, the most popular CAM therapies offered at their facilities include stress-management relaxation therapy, mindfulness, guided imagery, yoga, and progressive muscle relaxation therapy. Depending on the location, additional therapies include everything from art therapy to animal-assisted therapy to biofeedback to nutritional supplements. The VHA has also been doing research on even more obscure treatments like fecal transplants and maggot therapy.
What’s Available Beyond the System
While there are no data to indicate how many veterans participate in CAM therapies outside the system, there are more and more programs coming online for veterans that indicate there is a strong interest.
Antwan Martin, an Army veteran, explains that when he got out of the service, he “wasn't feeling really alive anymore.” To get the support he needed, he says, “I started to branch out. One of the things that I tried was yoga and different types of meditation practices.”
Antwan has now attended several veterans retreats at Omega with Annie Okerlin, a leading expert on adaptive yoga for veteran populations. Over time, he says, “When I'm back home now, taking some of these practices with me and incorporating them into my daily life, I'm able to feel again.”
Yoga and mindfulness programs are perhaps the most popular alternative therapies being tailored for veterans, but a number of other practices are being developed or modified for this population, including:
Equine therapy programs
A call-and-response chanting practice that originated in India called kirtan
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), also known as tapping, as well as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and craniosacral therapy
A program that pairs veterans with PTSD with parrots who are also suffering from their own version of the disorder
Various nature-based programs like sweat lodges, swimming with dolphins, and specialized wilderness experiences
Writing as therapy
Apps for those dealing with PTSD now cover a range of modalities, including breathing techniques, mindfulness practices, cognitive behavioral therapy, anger management, nightmare management, and mood tracking
Exposure therapy using virtual reality
Therapy sessions using artificial intelligence
Before trying a new therapy or practice, veterans may want to ask the teacher or practitioner if they have specific training for working with veterans and/or trauma. Even the most well-meaning treatments can re-traumatize someone if practiced without a sensitivity to the unique needs of someone suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injury and their related symptoms.
Practitioners may also want to seek out a trauma-informed training in their discipline in order to serve the growing interest of veterans in complementary and alternative therapies.