Photo courtesy of Kevin James

Diving Out of the Depths – How Diving is Helping PTSD Sufferers

As we approach Memorial Day, it is worth remembering that for many, conflict does not stop when they leave the battlefield, but stays with them internally and makes everyday life a battle. Thankfully, many specialists, individuals, and charitable organizations are working hard to help those who live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

For Kevin James, it all began in 2011 when he read a SCUBA magazine piece about diving improving feelings in paralyzed individuals by up to 15%. Hidden deep within the study from the Johns Hopkins University Hospital, he noticed the doctors suggested in passing that they had discovered by accident improvements in PTSD symptoms of between 85% and 100%. Kevin immediately thought this was worthy of further investigation.

As an ex PT Corps Diver and Sub Aqua Diving Supervisor (SADS), he was very excited about the possibility of improving or even eliminating PTSD sufferers symptoms through diving.

He began to offer his location as well as his dive equipment, boat, expertise and time, free of charge to as many verteran organizations that he could find on the internet on both sides of the Atlantic, in an effort to give back.

“After making a supreme effort to create some interest, encouraged all the way by my fellow ex Army goalkeeper Dave Smith, I finally decided to give up on all of the so-called caring organizations and go it alone,” Kevin explains. “In my extreme frustration at those organizations I posted a rant on a British Warriors Facebook page with over 13,000 followers. This proved to be the breakthrough I needed, Jim, a PTSD sufferer who is ex Black Watch, contacted me having seen the post. He asked if he could come to the Bahamas to see whether scuba diving would help with his symptoms. I later discovered that his wife Magi was very skeptical about it all but a holiday in the Bahamas sounded good to her!”

Jim’s symptoms were such that he flailed around in bed at night as if in an electric chair. He also had very dark thoughts during the day about hurting people. He would get extremely angry if he so much as spilt a drink, broke something or had a minor mishap of some sort.

While awaiting Jim’s arrival, Kevin contacted as many experienced dive friends and medical types that he could, picking their brains for any useful information.

It was suggested to that diving deeper was not necessarily better for improving symptoms, and Kevin kept an open mind in that regard. A program was planned, starting with a shakedown dive to check for buoyancy, then progressing deeper for each dive to find a sweet spot depth wise for Jim.

“We embarked on dives between 60 and 130 feet (PADI industry standard for deepest depth) discovering that after the deeper excursions he felt much better than after the shallower ones. He said that a couple of hours after one of the deep dives he had an episode where he felt a black cloud physically leaving his brain. He discovered that he no longer felt any anger or dark thoughts. Magi confirmed he was sleeping like a baby but stealing all the covers! The diving continued for the week and both confirmed on leaving that his symptoms were no longer present. He has now been symptom free for 18 months.”

Being encouraged by Jim’s success another sufferer was sought and subsequently found. He was unable to pay his own way so Kevin reached out to friends, family and contacts asking for advice, guidance or help with raising funds. A friend of Kevin’s generously offered air miles to bring the sufferer out Economy class, then return him home First Class! Encouraged by this substantial donation, Kevin funded the internal flight, accommodation and all incidental expenses himself.

Trevor was selected due to him already being a diver as was Jim. He was quite ill and had not worked for over a year. Both he and Jim had completed numerous combat tours. His diving program was planned to be very much the same as Jim’s. Trevor also commented that he felt much better after the deeper dives than the shallower ones. On three separate occasions, whilst Skyping with his family they asked if he had been drinking due to his exuberant behavior and happy smiling face! He of course had not – he just felt so much happier. He also claimed to leave PTSD symptom free and has been now for 11 months and is back at work.

The next hurdle for Kevin was to find a very severe sufferer and also someone who had never dived before, therefore potentially giving the opportunity to more sufferers in the future. He started talking to David, a serving Sergeant in the Royal Signals who had recently been placed voluntarily in a psychiatric facility, “smooth room, no shoelaces” was his description of his stay there. He is a keen swimmer but had never tried scuba diving.

David recalls sitting on the edge of his bed staring forlornly at the “suicide check“ hatch in the door of his “smooth room”, no shoelaces, no sharp edges, a plastic mirror, nothing to tie anything to overhead. They call it a psychiatric wing, he calls it a living nightmare. “It’s for your own good,” they said, but David knew it would become much worse if he didn’t get out soon.

Kevin reaches out oto David offering a trip to the Bahamas to scuba dive hoping to improve his PTSD symptoms. A resounding “no” is the first answer. David knows he can’t even get off the couch to visit the local shop for milk. Eventually, maybe just to shut the persistent Kevin up, David agrees to do the dive.

Money was raised via a Just Giving page for his flights and accommodations. He was instructed to complete a try dive in the U.K. to ensure he was able to cope with diving. He also obtained a dive medical and permission to scuba dive from both his doctor and psychiatrist.

Feeling keen, David also enrolled for a PADI Open Water course in the U.K., less the ocean dives which Kevin was required by referral to complete for him after his arrival in the Bahamas. This qualification then enabled him to complete an Advanced Open Water course so he could dive deeper than 100 feet.

“On first meeting David, it was clear that he was quite ill as he had to be accompanied by his wife for the journey,” Kevin recalls. “Yet again, David felt very much better after the deeper dives than the shallower ones. He said it felt like his brain was being flushed from the inside and the foggy feeling he had before was no longer there.”

Six months have gone by since his last dive, and David reports he’s still PTSD symptom free, enjoying himself as never before. Looking forward to a life that was over but is now back on track. He is still in the British Army having served many combat tours during his 17 years, in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places. His comment is all that Kevin needed to hear: “I have my life back!”

Kevin tells us that it would appear from discoveries on the ground (and of course underwater) the following could be happening in the brain before, during and after the therapeutic scuba dives: When a traumatic event is witnessed, Cortisol is produced in the brain as a clever coping mechanism otherwise the person witnessing the event would have an immediate catastrophic meltdown.

“This substance is a sticky gummy affair coating the ‘feel good’ receptors in the brain,” Kevin explains. “This situation tends to make the PTSD sufferer very angry as one of the symptoms. The divers said this made them feel very negative all of the time and they couldn’t seem to fully enjoy life. I am reliably informed that Serotonin (the body feel good chemical) and Nitrogen breathed at elevated partial pressures i.e. at depth could be forming a caustic cocktail and therefore scrubbing the sensors clean or simply removing the Cortisol from the brain. It would appear that this then allows the feel good receptors and the Serotonin to do what they are supposed to do. So far three PTSD sufferers have visited, dived, then left, claiming to be symptom free.”

What’s next for Kevin and his PTSD Progress Through Scuba Diving cause?

“We plan to become a registered charity which should be in place soon. Following this achievement it is hoped that someone will look at this project with a view to enrolling sufferers with civilian or military dive centres on PTSD diver courses. They only have to be taken safely to 60 feet in order to gain symptom relief. David said after a shallow dive to this depth he could feel his brain fog clearing.”

But it’s not all about the diving. “Banter is also a very big part of helping sufferers before and after dives, but that will always be present where veterans and serving soldiers are concerned!”

Anyone interested in diving with Kevin or helping his cause can contact him at kjamespi@aol.com or the Facebook page PTSD Progress Through Scuba Diving.

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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