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Deptherapy: Using Scuba to Rehabilitate Veterans

In 2008, Scottish charity Deptherapy was formed with the purpose of rehabilitating wounded UK Armed Forces personnel through the medium of scuba diving. The charity offered resort-style introductions to diving, but in 2014, it collapsed – leaving a void in the lives of those soldiers and veterans that had already benefited from their experiences underwater.

However, course graduates Chris Middleton and Richard Ward remained determined to qualify as fully-fledged PADI divers despite the fact that both men had suffered double leg amputations. Their courage (and ultimately, their achievement in fulfilling their goal) inspired a group of dedicated individuals to set up a new charity, Deptherapy & Deptherapy Education. The new charity, which is headed by President Air Vice-Marshal Jon Lamonte and Chairman Richard Cullen, expands upon the scope of the original charity by enabling participants to achieve a PADI Open Water Diver certification card with no ‘disabled’ strings attached.

Now registered as an English charity and with funds secured from the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Royal Foundation’s Endeavour Fund, Deptherapy uses scuba diving to rehabilitate servicemen and women with severe physical or mental injuries. More than that, it acts as an extended family and support system for those that return from service with life changing injuries.

Deptherapy Divers Chatting
Deptherapy Divers Chatting

How Deptherapy Works

Today, Deptherapy has helped countless British soldiers suffering from a wide range of injuries, including amputation, paralysis, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The premise of the charity’s work is simple: participating service personnel and veterans are taught how to dive using the PADI system, with some ultimately reaching PADI Divemaster certification or higher. Deptherapy hosts its programs at Egyptian resort Roots Red Sea, and also offers major overseas expeditions. In 2018, the charity will be flying 10 wounded-in-service participants to famous wreck-diving destination Chuuk Lagoon, after an intensive training program that will include a Red Sea Military Wrecks liveaboard.

The second arm of the charity, Deptherapy Education, trains mainstream dive centers and instructors to teach disabled students. These training programs last for two days, and cover specialized topics including the effects of medication underwater, and how to accurately weight divers with prosthetic limbs. Teaching men and women with severe injuries how to dive independently often requires some flexibility. This includes adapting course standards to suit each diver’s specific abilities and moderating equipment to help address different handicaps. The charity is also working with organizations in the UK and the U.S. to research the scientific value of diving as a rehabilitation tool.

The Science of Scuba

Currently, the scientific research on scuba as therapy is limited. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that for soldiers with major physical injuries, the weightlessness associated with diving allows a respite from the constant pain that they experience on land. At the same time, water resistance helps to strengthen wasted muscles; while being vertical in the water allows divers to breathe more easily than they are able to in a wheelchair. In turn, this increases the amount of oxygen absorbed by the body’s tissues, helping to improve muscle strength, tone, and sensitivity.

In 2011, researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury conducted a six-week study on a group of 10 paralyzed veterans. The veterans completed a PADI Open Water Course, and afterward completed a series of tests designed to measure the effect of diving on their mental and physical health. The study found that on average, the soldiers experienced a 15% decrease in muscle spasticity, a 10% increase in light touch sensitivity, and a 5% increase in sensitivity to pinprick.

In addition, the researchers noted the mental benefits of the diving course, which included a 15% drop in symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder, and an incredible 80% decrease in the symptoms of PTSD. It is thought that results like these could be due to the increased output of serotonin (also known as the happiness hormone) under pressure. For veterans suffering from conditions like these, the underwater world provides a calming environment that allows them to focus on the positive, rather than on stressful or traumatic memories.

While it is not yet known how long positive effects like these last for, it seems likely that diving on a regular basis could greatly improve quality of life for veterans afflicted by both mental and physical disabilities. Warm water diving is thought to be especially beneficial, which is why Deptherapy hosts its programs in the balmy waters of the Red Sea.

Deptherapy Divers Pool Training
Deptherapy Divers Pool Training

Regaining a Sense of Self

Above all, the Deptherapy team believes that scuba therapy has the power to instill in participating veterans a sense of hope. For active ex-servicemen and women, a sudden physical or mental handicap can lead to acute depression and a sense that ‘normal’ life is no longer achievable. Learning to dive proves that barriers can be overcome, giving soldiers the pride and self-confidence they need to rebuild their lives. Importantly, the program also prevents wounded soldiers from becoming isolated by connecting them with others that have shared the same experience.

In December 2015, Trooper Danny Martin of the Royal Scots’ Dragoon Guards qualified as a PADI Open Water Diver through Deptherapy. A cancer survivor with acute PTSD, Martin had the following to say about his experience:

“When I came back from Afghan I thought my war was over, little did I know my battle was about to begin. This amazing charity has just changed my life and the lives of my family, it has saved my life.”

Currently, Deptherapy only offers courses for injured veterans of the British Armed Forces; but in the future, it is hoped that the charity will expand to the point where it is able to offer programs to members of the UK blue light services and the disabled public.

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Jessica Macdonald
Jessica Macdonald
Originally from the UK, Jessica now lives on South Africa's spectacular east coast. She's a qualified PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor, as well as a keen conservationist and shark fanatic. When she's not underwater, she can be found at her computer where she works as a freelance diving and travel writer.


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