By Elisse Miller
In the past 10 years, nearly 18,000 veterans have received treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) through the Veterans Affairs office in San Diego. While it’s no surprise that the brave men and women who return from their heroic service can have a difficult time adjusting to normal, everyday life, the right treatment is not always as obvious. One local group, however, is trying to make PTSD solutions as clear as our crystal blue oceans.
Wave Academy is an organization that focuses on early-intervention rehabilitation for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Using local pools, they specialize in an emerging treatment known as aquatic bodywork therapy (ABT), which uses warm water to relax, massage, stretch and strengthen muscles. The pool-based therapies have helped veterans with a range of PTSD symptoms including sleeplessness, depression and suicidal thoughts, and Wave Academy practitioners believe ABT is effective in service members from all military branches.
It all began in 2010 when founder Dave Towe was performing ABT via private practice. He started treating a young man with PTSD who had just come home after serving overseas, and was moved by his success. After that, Towe developed a passion for the new veteran community and decided to create an organization that catered to their needs.
Lowe focuses on younger veterans because they often have new families; if a parent is suffering from PTSD, it can have a negative impact on their children and possibly lead to divorce.
“If we can help them, they’re going to be better and stronger leaders in our community,” Lowe said. “They’re not going to disappear, commit suicide or get addicted to drugs and alcohol.”
Thankfully for Towe and his desire to help, San Diego is the perfect location for carrying out such a dream. Not only do we have a large military population, but we also have a high interest in aquatics given our beaches and groups like the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Wave Academy treats patients in four different pools in San Diego County, one of which is located on Grandview Drive in La Mesa. The pools are heated to 96 degrees. After a patient is in the water for 20 minutes, the nervous system is completely relaxed. They then float with assistance, which relieves both mental and physical tension, especially in the spine. The academy even suggests caregivers undergo the therapy because they suffer from large amounts of stress as well.
One of Wave Academy’s clients is Samantha “Spike” Bywater, who was a prison guard in Afghanistan. When she came back home on Christmas Day in 2011, she already knew that something was not right. She started receiving help from a psychologist and psychiatrist to treat her PTSD, but she said those treatments felt like “band-aids” that only helped in the moment. She heard about the Wave Academy and saw immediate results after beginning treatment. By her third session, she made an intentional decision to heal.
“I felt in the water that I couldn’t hold on to any secrets or lies,” Bywater said. “The water is not judgmental, and I like that—I like the feeling of being free and open and knowing that I don’t have to hold secrets anymore.”
Bywater said she began to feel alive again, and that ABT saved her life. Her therapy sessions were so effective that she decided this was her life calling. She finished training in October to become an ABT practitioner and will start treating clients in late November.
“I left my soul in Afghanistan and I found my soul in the water,” Bywater said.
Not only do a slew of happy, mentally healthy clients boast the effectiveness of this program, but now there’s research to back it up. Wave Academy partnered with the Center for Research and Reform in Education Institute at Johns Hopkins University and conducted a study of 15 retired service members, all undergoing eight-week programs of ABT. After the eight weeks were up, researchers found that participants experienced a 28 percent decrease in their PTSD symptoms. Even after just two one-hour sessions, researchers observed better sleep, reduced anxiety and less pain. This research is some of the first to ever be done on the effects of ABT on veterans.
In 2013 alone, Wave Academy raised more than $150,000 in donations, and is expected to have grown its sessions by 300 percent in just the last year. However, four pools is not enough to serve all the veterans Lowe wants to help. Wave Academy is seeking leads on any pools that would be able to host its therapy sessions.
If you or someone you know is interested in utilizing Wave Academy’s services, there’s an application on their website to start receiving treatment. They ask that all applicants be diagnosed with PTSD and have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, but there is no waiting list at this time.
Towe says that when service members with PTSD learn to trust their ABT practitioner, they learn to trust people in everyday moments, leading to a life of less stress and a more positive outlook.
—Elisse Miller is a freelance writer covering the San Diego region.