Among the military veterans interviewed for a recent Kaiser Health Network story on the role service dogs have played over the years in helping veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder was Air Force veteran Danyelle Clark-Gutierrez. She recounts how, after her diagnosis, doctors at Veterans Administration hospitals prescribed her a deluge of medications. “Her prescriptions added up to more than a dozen pills a day” at one point, says the report.
“I had medication, and then I had medication for the two or three side effects for each medication,” she explains to reporter Stephanie O’Neill. “And every time they gave me a new med, they had to give me three more. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was just getting so tired. So we started looking at other therapies.”
Because she had PTSD but no physical disability, she found herself on her own when it came to covering the estimated $25,000 in costs to adopt and train a service dog. Fortunately, there were nongovernment organizations there to help.
While service dogs don’t necessarily cure PTSD, they have long been known to ease its symptoms. Clark-Gutierrez tells Kaiser that her service dog “has helped her quit using alcohol and stop taking VA-prescribed medications for panic attacks, nightmares and periods of disassociation.”
As I conveyed several weeks ago, legislation enacted in August now requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to open its service dog referral program to veterans with PTSD. Removed from VA policy is the previous requirement that participating veterans have a physical mobility issue, such as a lost limb, paralysis or blindness.
“For the last 10 years, the VA has essentially told us that they don’t recognize service dogs as helping a veteran with post-traumatic stress,” says Rory Diamond, CEO of K9s for Warriors, the nation’s largest provider of trained service dogs to military veterans suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury and/or military sexual trauma.
According to the National Center for PTSD, going through the kind of trauma that produces this condition is rather common. It is estimated that nearly 15 million adults in this country suffer from PTSD during any given year. What’s clear is that new treatment approaches for PTSD and other brain conditions are sorely needed.
It reminds me of something Albert Einstein famously once said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” It’s time we recognize that maybe even new “weird science”-sounding approaches to mental health need to be seriously explored. Many are already obtaining positive results.
As reported by NPR, Michael Schneider, a former military aviator, suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2005 when he was involved in a helicopter incident on board a U.S. Naval vessel. Later, while training for high-altitude flights, he experienced sudden decompression, which is like the bends for aviators. As a result, he suffered stroke-like symptoms. Schneider eventually recovered from both incidents, but they took a toll.
Today, when his anxiety and PTSD flare up, he reaches for his ukulele. It’s all part of a program called Creative Forces, an arts therapy initiative sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and developed in partnership with the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. Before signing up for the program, Schneider says he had lost all hope of any recovery.
“I didn’t really believe that I was going to make it through the next couple of years. My brain was just shutting down,” he says. This was before military doctors referred him to Rebecca Vaudreuil, a music therapist at Creative Forces.
During an initial session, she had him play a few notes on a piano. “I started to hum the notes and she’s like, ‘You can sing.'”
Before you know it, they were singing an Andrea Bocelli operatic number together. This breakthrough led to more musical exploration (including the ukulele). “It also helped Schneider start talking about his struggles and gave him a way to reduce his seizures and relieve some of his anxiety and PTSD,” says NPR.
“Relearning music took away that fight-or-flight, that ingrained piece of how I trained,” he says. “It was able to open up all these new pathways through my brain.”
Admittedly, most of these treatments, which range from music to poetry to visual arts, have not undergone rigorous scientific testing. That is about to change.
Dr. Eric Nestler, who directs the Friedman Brain Institute at Mt. Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, is part of an initiative called the NeuroArts Blueprint. “Advances in brain imaging technology are making it possible to objectively measure brain changes produced by arts therapies,” he says. “Now, in addition to reporting the behavioral changes, one could identify a greater level of activity in circuits in the brain related to memory and emotions.”
“Depression is the world’s leading cause of disability,” NPR’s Lesley McClurg says, which is partly because patients get numerous side effects from treatment options or don’t respond at all.
Emma is a 59-year-old Bay Area resident who asked her last name not be used because of the stigma of mental illness. Three years ago, “I was suicidal,” she tells NPR. “I was going to die.”
That’s when her psychiatrist urged her to enroll in a study conducted by Stanford University School of Medicine designed for people like Emma who felt they had exhausted all treatment options. She became part of a new type of magnetic stimulation therapy calibrated to deliver precise electrical pulses to her brain directed at the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls plans, dreams and emotions. It is an area thought to be underactive in depression. For Emma, three years later, the results of feeling less depressed and more in control are holding.
“This study is hopefully just the tip of the iceberg,” says Shan Siddiqi, a Harvard psychiatrist not connected to the study. “I think we’re finally on the verge of a paradigm shift in how we think about psychiatric treatment.”