Nonprofit helping veterans heal during COVID-19 through aquatic therapy

Posted at 4:40 PM, Aug 11, 2020

The 2008 recession proved devastating not only to the economy but American lives after suicide numbers spiked in its wake. And for veterans at a high risk of unemployment and mental illness, experts say greater efforts are needed to support the population.

A nonprofit in San Diego is using a unique form of therapy to help veterans and their caregivers during this time.

"All I have to do is relax. Being able to get out of my head and literally not have to do anything for an hour, it's amazing," said Candra Murphy, an Air Force veteran.

In a pool heated to match the human temperature, veterans are transported to a state of calm.

"It's often equated to if you were to go all the way back to being the womb, and that safety and serenity of being in the watery environment," said Elizabeth Berg, executive director of Wave Academy.

But like many veterans sent to the aquatic therapy program, Murphy had her reservations.

"The first session, I was tense pretty much all the way through," remembered Murphy.

Murphy served for six years and deployed once to Balad, Iraq. She says the base was a constant target for mortar attacks, and the most difficult part of the deployment was not knowing what was going to happen next.

When she reintegrated back into civilian life, everyday tasks like driving, were a challenge.

"It just depends on the day. More often than not, my symptoms tend to show up as anxiety, hyper-vigilance, general distrust of crowds. I tend to self-isolate a lot," said Murphy.

Through counseling, Murphy learned she had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She began sessions at Wave Academy before COVID-19, but like many services, it was put on hold.

Murphy says she's been managing the pandemic well, but it was challenging not having access to the therapies which help with her PTSD.

"For the first time ever, we have a wait list of people who would like to have our therapy program," said Berg.

Wave Academy serves veterans, active duty service members, and caregivers. Through donors and granters, they're able to provide eight sessions at no cost for people with low to moderate-income.

"It's great for physical therapy as well, the warm water and the light massaging and maybe twist or stretches is absolutely helpful for the physical body. But I think the piece that makes it so effective when we're working with veterans who have post-traumatic stress, you know we're working with that trauma of the mind, is that this particular therapy transcends from body to mind," said Berg.

Clinical psychologist Mark Jesinoski works with combat veterans, many who were already dealing with heightened physical and emotional pain before the pandemic.

"I'm hearing from a lot of veterans that they're feeling more isolated, they're feeling less supported. Exactly what they need they're not getting right now," said Dr. Jesinoski.

He says he's alarmed by what he sees in his practice, for both civilians and veterans.

"When I look back at my veteran community that I get to work with every day and feel their pulse, what I notice is every single thing they experience as normal people is completely and totally magnified by what's happening in our society today," said Dr. Jesinoski.

A report from the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute indicated that for every 5 percent increase in the national unemployment rate, as many as 550 veterans a year could be lost to suicide, and 20,000 more could suffer from substance abuse disorders.

But instead of focusing on predictions, Dr. Jesinoski says society should seek proactive solutions.

"I don't think it's a matter of putting more money into it, I think it's about being much smarter and much wiser in how we allocate that money in being a much more interconnected system of services," said Dr. Jesinoski.

Between the government and community nonprofits like Wave Academy.

"What I would say to a veteran if they are struggling is don't do that pride thing, don't do that isolation thing, don't do the 'I ain't got time to bleed thing'. Be willing to take a breath and to overcome that resistance to asking for help," said Jesinoski.

After being inspired by his journey of working and healing with veterans, Dr. Jesinosky started a podcast to help support the population.

If you or someone you know needs help, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline anytime at 1-800–273-8255.