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Bill Alexander, a U.S. Navy veteran at Weatherford College’s Veteran Center, is studying nature and it’s effects on healing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for women veterans (PTSD) by researching nature-based and horticultural therapy.
PTSD has long been one of the primary mental concerns for military members and nature may play a pivotal role in helping tackle the subject, Alexander said.
Cognitive behavioral therapy and medical drugs are considered the most effective forms of treatment for PTSD, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs’ National Center for PTSD.
Women who do experience PTSD are more likely to experience sexual assault in society — which includes the military, Alexander said.
Alexander recalls a negative incident he experienced in the military involving female sexual assault and a ‘blame the victim’ mentality.
“The first thing my supervisor told me was don’t talk to her because she’s accused someone of rape and I’m thinking to myself ‘Isn’t she the victim?’” he said.
PTSD is more than just sexual assault however, since combat serves as a great equalizer for women and men alike having trouble readjusting post-deployment, according to 2003-2010 studies conducted by the VA’s Women’s Health Sciences Division of the National Center for PTSD.
Nature can mitigate a variety of stresses, and natural landscapes can have a calming effect, Alexander said.
“Nature assisted therapy is basically a therapeutic interaction that happens in nature ... anything from walks in the woods to exploring landscapes,” he said.
Alexander is also involved with Project Healing Waters, an organization that uses fly-fishing as a way to help heal veterans in a horticultural way.
Project Healing Waters uses therapeutic fly fishing to help veterans deal with PTSD, depression and anxiety and physical disabilities as well,” he said. “What it does is puts a veteran in nature and helps them out. The rhythmic count of a rod whenever you’re casting and the flow of the water and the sounds. The visual aspects of nature.”
The complex nature of PTSD is what makes the disorder so hard to manage, and alternative therapies provide a broader number of options which may be effective, according to VA National Center for PTSD studies.
Mental difficulties start with the personal struggles of one’s mind, Alexander said.
“A lot of them live in their minds, which is an awfully small place to live and then you start contemplating,” he said.
Nature-focused activities provide a safe space and a sense of belonging, Alexander said.
“It takes them off the couch into an environment with other veterans and basically what they get is they get to see a whole different side of life and it gets them back to what life is supposed to be,” he said. “It’s supposed to be meant for living not just doing.”
The therapy has even received attention overseas in places such as Denmark’s University of Copenhagen, which published a 2015 study detailing that horticultural therapy can help veterans go from being less social to seeking more open and social environments.
“I always use the term ‘You don’t need to do life, you need to live life’, Alexander said.
Participating in those types of activities presents an environment of unity, he said.
“There’s immediate camaraderie- that in itself is therapeutic,” Alexander said. “They start coming out of their shell and start coming out of their mind and start saying ‘Wow there really is something other than sitting on the couch, living within myself.’”
Effects of such nature therapies is amazing, Alexander said.
“You can see it,” he said. “I’ll take them (veterans) out from day one to day four and you’ll watch a veteran change.”
Alexander believes in biophilia, the belief that there is a natural bond between human beings and other living systems.
“You start putting your hands in the soil and you realize that there’s biophilia, known as life in the soil,” he said.
“You’re gonna put a seed in there and a plant that’s gonna produce fruit and you’re gonna pick it and consume it. It’s gonna create life again, so there’s a lot of life circles in that.”