Scuba Diving Improves Well-Being
Disabled scuba divers report a positive change in quality of life and physical function after a week of scuba diving. In several studies, participants self-reported an improvement in quality of life as they experienced lack of pain underwater (due to weightlessness), sense of community, confidence in their abilities, normalization of their injuries/disability, and happiness from engaging in an activity they enjoy. The underwater environment provides a type of global resistance training which allows disabled divers a unique rehabilitative workout – this effect is believed to result in better physical functioning, with disabled divers experiencing less pain, increased sensory perception, and a greater range of motion (Carin-Levy & Jones, 2007; Cater, 2008; Dimmock, 2010; Morgan et. al, 2018; Supik, 2018). Furthermore, disabled divers also report an improvement in their mental well-being. Scuba diving is considered “ecotherapy,” whereby participants of the sport engage not only in physical activity but also with their surrounding environment. This leads to a greater appreciation for the beauty of nature and a sense of peace and happiness – this sense of peace and relaxation results in reduced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. The psychosocial response includes improved sleep, less frequent nightmares or flashbacks, decrease in suicidal thoughts, decline in feelings of depression, and increased self-worth (Davis-Berman, Berman & Berman, et. al, 2018; Lundberg, et. al, 2016; Rogers, Loy, Brown-Bochicchio, 2016). We believe that participant commentary, or anecdotal accounts, are revelatory in assessing the impact of scuba diving as an alternative therapy. Diving with Heroes’ alumni attest to the safe, therapeutic environment that our programs create, allowing them to comfortably participate, build lasting friendships, and reduce their stress levels. Firsthand feedback from our hero divers tell us that when they dive, they feel far less anxious, experience fewer headaches, and experience a feeling of freedom that was previously missing from their life. We have seen veterans with PTSD change from emotionally shut down and compartmentalized to open and engaged during a single seven-day excursion. Divers with amputations say they enjoy the feeling of fully participating in every underwater task given, with their lack of a limb having no effect on their ability to participate. We are confident, based off feedback and from our past experiences, that nature-based recreation is a critical component of rehabilitation and reintegration for the disabled veteran community.
Adaptive Sports Programs Build Community
The discharge of the veteran from military service, where individuals lived and worked in a structured, team-oriented setting, is a difficult transition. Many disabled veterans often feel rudderless after being separated from their units and relieved of their duties – they lose a sense of self that was formerly defined by their military community. Scuba diving is an inherently social sport which centers on the social interaction of the buddy team. Similar to the military’s idea of a battle buddy, diving in a buddy-pair forces divers to be responsible for each other, checking each other’s gear, and giving them someone to look out for and work with. This not only builds camaraderie and instills teamwork and confidence, but also reinforces the disabled divers’ sense of equality and self-identity (Morgan et. al, 2018). Veterans agree that it is easier to build relationships with others that share similar military experiences. When provided opportunities to engage in group activities focused on disabled veterans, identifying with the participants helps to confront feelings that they are alone in their struggles, or that challenges they face are unique to them. Feeling understood helps to create community bonds, provides a sense of normalcy, and combats isolation and loneliness (Hawkins, et. al, 2015; Lundberg, et. al, 2016; Rogers, Loy, Brown-Bochicchio, 2016). By providing a renewed sense of community, our hero divers find it easier to reintegrate into their hometown communities. Many of the divers who had their training funded by DWH have continued in the scuba community earning additional certifications up to and including Master Scuba Diver Trainer. The sense of community that DWH has worked hard to create also carries over to alumni participating in additional excursions. Diving with Heroes funds 100 percent of the expenses for first-time participants, while volunteers fully fund their own way. If a hero diver wishes to attend a second (or third!) DWH excursion, we ask they pay a percentage of their individual expenses so we can continue to dedicate the bulk of our funding to bringing new disabled divers into the fold. To date, more than 30 percent of our hero divers have returned to participate as alumni participants. This further integrates our disabled veteran scuba community with itself, giving DWH’s hero divers a broader community with which to engage, and speaks to the benefits our divers derive from their participation.