Research from around the world shows the benefits of being outdoors to one’s mental health. But what happens when you use such approaches for those suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and how can this be blended with ideas of peer-support in order to make it stronger?
In this blog, Dr Nick Cooper , along with Dr Mark Wheeler and Nic Blower, gives an insight into how they fell into a public engagement project. Their idea, to combine the use of angling with the idea of veterans providing psychological support to each other into a method for trying to combat some of the more pervasive symptoms of PTSD.
For me, as an academic involved in psychology, public engagement with science provided a means to break out from the ivory tower of my neuroscience lab. This blog is a brief tale of how I escaped Rapunzel-like from the clutches of my psychophysiological devices and what adventures were lying in wait in the big, bad world beyond.
The story begins in a quiet and cosy bar, several Christmases ago. My colleague, Mark Wheeler, and I were discussing the benefits we both got from angling – how we felt refreshed, relaxed and de-stressed after a session dangling worms and vainly attempting to lure a fish to the shore. We agreed about the benefits to our mental health and wellbeing, and wondered about how we could translate this into some kind of research that could benefit others besides us.
Mark’s background was a Counselling Psychologist. He worked in Colchester, one of the country’s biggest garrison towns, with many patients who were military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Our immediate sense was that this was a possible match made in heaven – military veterans and fishing. Inspired by work, already going on at the University of Essex into the psychological benefits of ‘green exercise’, we found research from around the globe that showed the value of using environmentally-based interventions for those suffering with PTSD and how this could be blended with ideas of peer-support in order to make it stronger. In other words, we could combine the use of angling with the idea of veterans providing psychological support to each other into a method for trying to combat some of the more pervasive symptoms of PTSD in this peer group – such as anxiety, loneliness, frustration and often depression.
And so, we began taking veterans with PTSD fishing. The community was incredibly supportive; angling companies and charities gave us gear and bait, provided angling coaches and allowed us access to wonderful lakes full of stunning fish that even I could occasionally catch. We set the lakes up so that our anglers could get as much social interaction or as little as they desired. We found that most wanted lots – evening barbecues helping to bolster the interaction. Best of all, the veterans kept in contact beyond the initial trips, setting up online communities and fishing with each other independently – supporting each other in a way that gave reason to us all. The results were fantastic; the veterans were improving on the array of mental health measures that we were employing. Mark and I were so inspired that we set up a community interest company (iCARP CIC) in order to try to include as many people as possible in this adventure and to run these interventions as often as possible.
It was at this stage, that another of our colleagues – Nic Blower, from the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies – had the inspired idea of making a documentary following a small group of veterans before and after one of our annual week-long fishing trips to France. The resulting film LIFTED is moving and enlightening; it shows the impact of PTSD not only on the individual veterans but also on their families, friends and how they relate to each other. At one point during the film, one of the veterans talks about how their PTSD makes them feel weak and less of a man; we have to say, watching the film, seldom have we seen anyone so brave, so honest and so inspiring.
And this is the feeling we are left with. We are inspired by the veterans we work with. How they show amazing resilience. How they keep on keeping on. How they help each other, when others would be feeling sorry for themselves. How their sense of humour enthuses those around them. And how, just for a brief moment, we can climb out of that ivory tower, and feel proud to be amongst such men.