Diving with PTSD
Scuba diving opened my eyes to a new world – and saved my life.
Guest blog by Michael Wood, SDI Instructor
I served 19 years in the Australian Army and completed several challenging deployments to hostile environments including Afghanistan. Currently, I live in the biggest military town in Australia – Townsville, which happens to also have incredible scuba diving. Being a military town, Townsville has a high number of ex-military individuals. Many of them have various injuries that come with service in the armed forces. The Army was the best job I ever had and I had no intention of leaving, even after almost two decades. Sadly, in 2020 I was medically discharged and diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and a range of career ending physical injuries.
Whilst I was being treated for my mental health issues I was talking to a mate, SDI Ambassador Jason Mengel. Jason is a former soldier and the owner of Remote Area Dive, and we got to talking about diving. He explained that he works with would-be scuba divers with injuries. Being a veteran-owned and staffed business, Remote Area Dive and Jason understand the unique issues that come with service.
I took him up on his offer and now use diving as part of my PTSD treatment plan. The experience touched me in a way that I would say was lifesaving. It got me out my head and made me focus on something positive rather than self-destruction. Since getting into scuba diving, my treating doctors have seen the improvement in my PTSD tenfold.
This led to me wanting to help others get out of their minds and give them a break from the horror of combat and the continual loop that your mind gets stuck into. With the help of Jason, I completed my SDI Open Water Instructor certification.
Jason and I have been heavily advocating for diving with PTSD for recovery and earlier this year we were given that chance to show the benefits when we teamed up with veteran’s organization The Oasis Townsville. We successfully conducted a three-day liveaboard for 15 veterans. The feedback I received form the veterans was very similar to my own experience. I was finally able pass on what I felt underwater to others.
What it feels like to have PTSD
PTSD in veterans is all too common, and the rate of which soldiers are committing suicide is higher than any other group. Having survived my own attempts highlights there was a need for something to change. The change for me was diving. I am still trapped in my head, but diving allows me to escape my mind for an hour or two. It allows me to silence the intrusive thoughts for the time I’m underwater and together with mindfulness strategies, I can continue my treatment and hopefully one day be free from the hell that is PTSD.
Having cold water on your face lowers your heart rate, this is a natural bodily response you cannot fight. Combined with the fact that your breathing is regulated, it is harder to hyperventilate. The surroundings while diving are not of a sandy colored IED ridden hostile environment but a mystical blue or green. Fish and sea-life seem interested in you and have the same calming effect that a puppy does.
Get out there and push yourself
If it wasn’t for the patience of Jason, I would not have competed my instructor journey. I am so glad that I had an instructor that was willing to take the time and understood what I was going through. I am now using my own experiences to pass on my journey with students.
I encourage anyone with mental health injuries and/or physical injuries to give diving a-go. The benefits of diving far outweigh and trepidation or nervousness that can come with venturing out and trying something new.
Being someone that hates crowds and hates confined areas, diving has given me a chance to get out on a boat and talk to others, something that I never would have done in 2020. I took the chance – and it paid off.
Michael Wood is an Australian Army veteran and SDI Scuba Instructor, currently based out of Remote Area Dive in Townsville, Australia. Connect with him on Instagram at @imwoody84.