“I got more healing in 4 days than I did in 10 years of therapy”: combat veteran champions PTSD programs that connect mental health and physical well-being

Paid for by Wounded Warrior Project

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“I just wanted to feel better,” Angie Peacock says, reflecting on her struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Traumatic experiences from her military service presented mental health challenges when Peacock returned home from war, leaving the veteran in a difficult — and dangerous — situation. One year after being medically retired from the military, Peacock found herself at rock bottom. Divorced, isolated and in pain, she turned to opioids for relief and slipped into a cycle of substance abuse. “I went on like that for two-and-a-half years,” she says.

Peacock’s experience is, unfortunately, not uncommon among combat veterans. Transitioning back to civilian life can be difficult, particularly in the face of challenges such as severe physical injury, depression and PTSD. For veteran service organizations such as Wounded Warrior Project — a nationwide nonprofit that offers a robust selection of free clinical and experiential health and wellness programs for military veterans — one priority is breaking down the barriers that prevent veterans like Peacock from seeking help. And while challenges such as accessibility and affordability sit high on that list of barriers, societal stigma remains a particularly significant roadblock.

“It takes more courage to seek treatment than it does not to seek treatment,” says Roger Brooks, senior program initiatives and integration specialist at Wounded Warrior Project. Brooks argues that societal stigma insists that only “broken” people get help, which, when internalized, discourages many veterans from seeking treatment when they need it.

But Peacock’s story does not end in defeat. With the help of Wounded Warrior Project, Peacock changed course from her path of over-dependence on prescription drugs and isolation. She overcame her addiction, restored her aptitude for physical fitness, graduated college and is now a peer mentor for other wounded warriors — a term the nonprofit uses to describe the post-9/11 population of veterans they serve.

Angela Peacock in Lake Sherwood, Missouri on Tuesday, January 15, 2013. (via Rainier Ehrhardt)
Angela Peacock poses for a portrait in Lake Sherwood, Missouri on Tuesday, January 15, 2013. (via Wounded Warrior Project)

“One of our primary aims is to challenge and neutralize those biases and stigmas that stand as barriers to much-needed care – both for mental health and for substance use,” says Michael Richardson, VP of independence services and mental health at Wounded Warrior Project. Research shows that 46% of people who struggle with lifetime PTSD also meet substance use disorder (SUD) criteria, which is why the challenges and solutions around treatment are at the forefront of discussion.

In partnership with RAND Corporation, Wounded Warrior Project recently released a report on co-occurring SUD treatment among veterans. The study shows that evidence-based, patient-centered treatment is most effective for veterans who struggle with a combination of symptoms and causes. This perspective differs from historically traditional program models which typically require abstinence for admission.

Closing the gap with treatments tailored to each patient

At the center of Wounded Warrior Project’s approach is an understanding of the close relationship between physical and mental health, and the need to treat PTSD using a patient-centered, evidence-based approach that shows both clinical and empirical success.

Wounded Warrior Project programs are designed to meet warriors where they are along their journey of recovery,” says Richardson. “We have developed a series of programs that allows for warriors to engage in a program based on their current stage of recovery. We provide a much more tailored approach to care, in which warriors feel heard and empowered as they engage with peers facing similar challenges as they heal together.”

Veterans face unique challenges, and custom-tailored recovery programs and plans are tailored to the physical and mental challenges, as well as their personal support system and environment. Facilitating veterans to participate in different — and often multiple — programs allows each veteran’s resiliency and psychological well-being to develop as they continue on their journey to recovery.

Wounded Warrior Project programming features a host of integrated treatment programs, including intensive inpatient programs at academic medical center partners. These Warrior Care Network programs —Emory Healthcare Veterans Program, Massachusetts General Hospital’s Home Base, Rush University Medical Center’s Road Home Program and UCLA Health’s Operation Mend — boast completion rates over 90%.

And after nearly 20 years of service, the wider Wounded Warrior Project community includes about 150,000 registered veterans.

Angie Peacock poses for a portrait in Lake Sherwood, Missouri on Tuesday, January 15, 2013. (via Rainier Ehrhardt)
Angie Peacock poses for a portrait in Lake Sherwood, Missouri on Tuesday, January 15, 2013. (via Wounded Warrior Project)

Supports long-term healing through adventure-based learning

For Angie Peacock, a combination of adaptive sports programs, peer support and adventure-based learning contributed to her success story. “I was so proud of myself,” she says. “I went from laying on the couch, sick, popping pills, to now running 5Ks. All those activities gave me a new way to live, without drugs, without feeling like I’m broken.”

Project Odyssey was one of those activities. Ryan Kules, director of combat stress and recovery at Wounded Warrior Project, breaks down their approach to adventure-based learning. “We use opportunities that increase blood pressure and heart rate — such as whitewater rafting and high ropes courses — and use a little bit of that stress and high anxiety to show folks that they are able to be in that environment.”

Veterans can learn and hone skills that help them work through that stress and anxiety, which they can then apply to managing PTSD triggers in everyday life. The program, which started back in 2007 with one excursion, today holds between 150 and 200 trips annually.

“I went from laying on the couch, sick, popping pills, to now running 5Ks. All those activities gave me a new way to live, without drugs, without feeling like I’m broken.” Angie Peacock

Strengthening resilience with community support

Peacock reflects on the impact of having an all-women cohort for her Project Odyssey experience. “All of us were combat vets and all of us had military sexual trauma,” she says. “I felt like I got more healing in four days than I did in 10 years of therapy.”

The cohort structure — which carries across many Wounded Warrior Project programs — also provides an opportunity to reframe the mindset some veterans have of being alone in their struggle. Soldiers often experience trauma surrounded by peers, but then return to civilian life to face physical and mental health challenges without that community.

For Wounded Warrior Project, treatment and empowerment is a dual-sided goal, and one that helps veterans support not only themselves, but also each other. “The Wounded Warrior Project peer support group in particular has been like a lifeline to me,” Peacock says.

Veterans like Peacock serve as powerful agents of change against mental health stigma in their communities, because their recommendations as ambassadors and living success stories carry an impactful endorsement. “No matter how much pain you’re in — emotional, physical or otherwise — there’s a magic potion for everyone,” Peacock says. “But you have to go find it.”

To learn more about Angie Peacock’s story, watch the video above.

From Wounded Warrior Project:

The Wounded Warrior Project is a nonprofit organization established to support and address the physical and mental health needs of post-9/11 injured veterans and their families. To learn more, visit woundedwarriorproject.org.

This article was sponsored by Wounded Warrior Project and co-created by RYOT Studio. Yahoo News editorial staff did not participate in the creation of this content.