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Saturday, January 28, 2023

Conquering PTSD… Underwater!

To mark the end of National Mental Illness Awareness Week, which was first established by Congress in 1990, we would like to share how one charity organization is helping post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sufferers.

There are currently about 8 million people in the United States living with PTSD and it is prevalent in first responders and military personnel who face severe trauma regularly as part of their role in protecting and aiding civilians. Some research indicates that PTSD may even be caused by physical brain injury caused by blasts.

A Johns Hopkins study has claimed that scuba diving can improve PTSD symptoms by up to 85%. Diver and former military man himself, Kevin James, aims to help as many PTSD sufferers as he can by teaching them to scuba dive in the Bahamas.

He recounts his most recent dive week with PTSD sufferer Trevor.

Trevor was selected based on his previous attempt to achieve symptom reduction by going on a week-long trip with a U.K. Scuba Charity. This attempt at symptom reduction did not work for him because while he found the diving very useful, the organization of the trip and the lack of a promised Buddy network after the event, “tipped him over the edge”.

It was decided to see if a one on one trip might work for him. Flights were very generously donated by a friend of Kevin’s, and some of the other necessary funding was found but there was a substantial shortfall which Kevin paid for himself. He also makes no charge for his time, equipment or expertise.

Trevor is a former Royal Anglian Soldier from the British Army, who then transferred to the Army Medical Corps. He has completed seven operational tours in his 17 year military career and has considerable combat experience. His PTSD manifested itself in constant anxiety, and a feeling of never being relaxed as if he always has to be on watch, which in his words is “ extremely exhausting”. Trevor has not been able to work for a year because of his symptoms.

Day one of Trevor’s diving week commenced with a shakedown dive which was completed to a maximum depth of 33 ft. Kevin explained that this was to achieve perfect buoyancy as most of the dives were completed in Deans Blue Hole which is 663 ft deep. The next dive was completed to a maximum of 60 ft to establish the geography of the Blue Hole for further diving. Trevor reported feeling very relaxed and not as anxious as on the trip over.

Day two saw a single dive to a maximum of 90 ft to establish what Kevin calls “work up protocol” in order for the diver to attain a maximum depth of 130 ft during his week. Trevor reported feeling a sense of safety and less anxious thoughts.

The following day, a single dive to a maximum of 120 ft was completed to continue the progress to Trevor’s desired maximum depth. “The visibility on this dive was poor due to rough weather,” Kevin recalled and Trevor said he thought he would be more anxious and concerned about the lack of good visibility than he was. In his opinion, taking everything slowly with no agenda other than spending as much time at the depth the dive tables and his dive computer allowed was of great benefit. “He felt he achieved something by not being concerned or worried about anything other than the agreed dive plan,” Kevin told us.

Day four was a two dive day, a morning dive to 130 ft which Trevor described as “euphoric” because he could see the circular geology of the Blue Hole from that depth, and six large Tarpon fish appeared to add to the scene. The second dive was a skills dive to a maximum of 20 ft that enabled Trevor to complete a dive qualification on his return to the U.K.

On the fifth day, Trevor reported the same euphoric feeling and no anxiety after a dive to 130 ft. “Having full redundancy of a spare scuba tank with two regulators clipped to my gear on every deep dive, Trevor said gave him the opportunity to 100% relax,” said Kevin. “This enabled him to use and enjoy his dive computer watch which I encouraged.  He led all of the dives based on our agreed profile, I spent my time on the dives watching him and keeping him safe.”

Day six saw Kevin and Trevor’s final deep dive to 130 ft, and Trevor reported the same feelings as before. The boat was launched on this day and a very shallow coral reef dive of 10 ft was completed to ensure the diver understood how to enter and exit the water from the boat.

On the final day, the pair completed three coral reef dives, the first one to 60 ft, the next two dives to 40 and 33 ft respectively. This allowed Trevor to completely relax and use his camera to document the dives. All dives incorporated a safety stop of at least five minutes but most of the time the divers spent 10 to 20 minutes enjoying the shallow coral reef areas of the Blue Hole rim at 15 to 20 ft.

Recalling the week, Kevin said he and Trevor consumed very little alcohol during the week, “a couple of beers or a glass or two of red wine most nights. There was a large amount of Army style banter being exchanged between us which the diver said he felt was equally as important to his symptom improvement as the diving.”

“Trevor also commented that my asking him to think really happy and joyous thoughts during the dives, especially the deeper ones, contributed to his relaxed feelings and symptom improvement. He spoke to his family on three different occasions during the week via internet video and different family members each time asked him if he had been drinking (he hadn’t) which to me demonstrated a visible change in him!”

Trevor’s wife Kelley said she was apprehensive when he had the opportunity go diving with Kevin as previous PTSD courses had not been successful. “After being anxious about the airport and travel to the Bahamas, he seemed himself again after a few days and he was excited about diving. He was diving daily and looking more refreshed each day, he was smiling more and more and was buzzing for our daily video call! The banter was a huge factor in helping Trev settle in and that definitely happened!”

She credits Kevin with “bringing my best mate and my soul mate back to me” adding that “he smiles more than ever before, I honestly can’t believe how much diving with Kevin has just clicked something in him!”

Trevor recently returned to the U.K. and has taken up a role with his local police force. Kevin also told us that his previous PTSD diver, Jim, has been symptom-free for seven months following his dive week.

Jim had spoken with a couple of psychiatrists over the years, the first being back in 2003. The sessions worked well in the short term but after a couple of months his PTSD symptoms always returned. His wife Magi says he seemed to have a wall up with everyone apart from the guys that had been over in Iraq with him.

“Then the night tremors and mood swings came which had no effect on his day to day life so he just got on with things,” said Magi. “Last year he started to get short flashbacks during the days which were pretty graphic and then he started to have what he described as little “day dreams” where he would be brutally killing someone/thing. It was clear to me that his symptoms were worsening year on year and he needed help.

“Obviously as soon as he explained what was going on I persuaded him to seek help again. His doctor was ex-forces and was brilliant. He put us in touch with Combat Stress who sadly weren’t interested as scarily Jim’s symptoms weren’t deemed “serious enough” to warrant their help. As fate would have it Kevin posted on the Warriors Facebook page offering to take soldiers/veterans out diving with the belief that the elevated levels of nitrogen breathed at depth mixed with the serotonin normally produced might help with PTSD symptoms.

“At this point I just wanted Jim to get help before things got any worse but if I’m being totally honest I was pretty skeptical it would work but the thought of a holiday in the Bahamas was very appealing to me! From about the second or third dive I began to see a difference in Jim. He slept the whole night without jumping around the bed, he was laughing and joking again and he wasn’t having any “day dreams” or flashbacks during the day!

“Jim sat down after one of the dives and explained very emotionally that it was like someone had lifted a big black cloud from somewhere above him or a massive weight had been lifted off him. I could physically see a difference at this point. This was all back in February this year and despite a couple of very stressful situations Jim has had no PTSD symptoms return. I wholeheartedly believe that Kevin is the reason I have my husband back to the man he was.”

If you would like to contact Kevin to offer support or if you are a PTSD sufferer who is interested in exploring the potential of scuba diving as a treatment, you can reach him by email or via his Facebook page PTSD – Progress Through Scuba Diving 

Kylie Bielby
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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