“I am a former serving soldier and having worked in some of the most hostile locations around the globe, I fully understand the severity of PTSD and the amount of people who are not getting the right treatment. I have lost many friends to PTSD. There are many organisations that are trying to help,  but Mark’s studies and outdoor activity projects are making a difference on another scale, “  Gary Stockton,  Komankra Ltd.

A programme, developed at Essex, is changing the lives of military veterans by helping them overcome the debilitating symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Trauma specialist Mark Wheeler recognised a growing need to help those who were being failed by traditional mental health provision. In response he developed a support package which has so far helped over 100 veterans, with some amazing results

As a psychological therapist working in the NHS, Mark realised the patients he was seeing from Colchester Garrison were just the tip of the iceberg – many more were in need of help, but a new approach was needed.
While continuing with his clinical work, Mark embarked on a PhD at Essex, supervised by Professor Sheina Orbell with the aim of finding a way to help more veterans.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is the name given to the psychological distress suffered by someone who has experienced fear, helplessness or horror because of a traumatic event, such as a serious accident, bereavement or military combat.

The majority of people exposed to traumatic events experience some short-term distress, which they overcome without professional help.

But those who develop PTSD symptoms can experience nightmares, intense anxiety and difficulty communicating with others. It can dramatically reduce their quality of life – impacting on both their ability to work and on their personal relationships.

Previous research has shown that military veterans with PTSD who most need support, are least likely to access it.

“Military personnel have a culture that is intolerant and dismissive towards those with mental health issues, so veterans are reluctant to seek professional help. If they enter treatment, they have a higher dropout rate and less successful outcomes. They are discouraged from talking about their traumatic experiences, so suffer in silence.”

An Alternative Approach

Alternative approaches have been tried elsewhere – the River to Recovery programme in the USA took military veterans on a canoeing trip, and another UK study took veterans surfing. Although these proved popular, there has been no measure of how successful they were in helping those taking part.

Mark drew on psychological theory and research from our Green Exercise Team, which has shown the enormous benefits to a person’s health and wellbeing of being outside, to develop the Peer Outdoor Exposure Therapy (POET) programme.

It comprises three elements – green exercise (particularly fishing), encouragement for veterans to share their experiences, rather than bottling up their feelings, and on-going peer support.

Participants are taken on two-day fishing trips, during which they are encouraged to open up about their experiences and provide support to each other. The trips have been made possible thanks to donations from fisheries and tackle companies who have been happy to help.

“The results have been remarkable and very quick. Within a day we can see a difference in participants,” said Mark. “We have had people who have not been out of their house for three years, asking when the next trip is and others have come back to act as mentors because they have benefitted so much, they want others to as well.”

Long-term Benefits

Over 100 veterans, and their families, have so far benefitted from the POET experience, with participants reporting reduced PTSD symptoms and an improvement both in their ability to work and in their personal lives.

“We carried out in-depth follow-up interviews with participants three years after the original intervention. One, who was unemployed because of the severity of his symptoms, has started an Open University degree, has got engaged and become a father again.  Another has returned to full-time employment and has got married, while a third has gone back to work full-time and has re-established contact with his daughter after a period apart.” 

The success of the programme has been recognised by both the NHS and veterans charities, including Veterans First, Combat Stress, Help for Heroes and the Invicta Foundation, who continue to refer clients to Mark for help.

The future looks bright

Although Mark has now finished his PhD  the good work will continue. He plans more fishing trips, both in this country and abroad. His long-term hope is for a land-owner to donate some land where he can build a fishing lake and small therapy centre, so he no longer has to rely on the good-will of the fishing industry.

And Essex has sponsored two PhD students to continue his research work.