Occupational therapists help war veterans adjust to their ‘new world’

Occupational therapists are helping ex–service men and women adjust to the new challenges of civilian life says the College of Occupational Therapists.  The UK’s professional body for occupational therapists (OTs) is highlighting the vital role of the profession as part of Occupational Therapy Week, 5 – 11 November.

Occupational therapists are improving the outlook for war veterans living with the psychological effects of military service, long after they have returned from duty.   Life can be extremely difficult for ex-servicemen and women – they face the practical challenge of finding new employment, and housing, as well as coping with the psychological effects of service such as flashbacks, nightmares and feelings of guilt. Occupational therapists support veterans to adjust to their ‘new world’, finding new ways to cope and reconnect with all aspects for their life, from the social to the practical.

David Murtagh is a qualified Occupational Therapist. He works as a Mental Health Practitioner for  Combat Stress, the UK’s leading charity specialising in the care of veterans’ mental health.

David says: “A report* by the Kings Centre for Military Health Research stated that 20% of British troops who served in Afghanistan and/or Iraq will develop probable mental health disorders and 4% PTSD. However on average veterans wait more than 13 years after leaving the Armed Forces before seeking help from Combat Stress.  It’s often family members that come to us concerned about their loved one’s behaviour or the veteran themselves finding they can no longer cope. We can work with them to turn things around and start looking at life differently.”

Veterans may experience hyper-vigilance, fear of safety, sleep disorder/nightmares, strong startle reflex, reliving past events triggered by sights, sounds and smells, fear of crowds, anxiety, anger and frustration.  These experiences can trigger avoidance behaviour and lead to the veteran isolating themselves. Many of them have low self esteem as they struggle to adjust to a new, less structured environment with a different set of activities and challenges. A number of veterans also experience emotional numbing placing extreme pressure on personal relationships.

David continues: “Veterans commonly struggle with adjusting to ‘civilian life’.  They will experience difficulties with even the most basic tasks. A simple trip to the supermarket can leave a veteran fearing for  their own safety, with them constantly scanning for threats or danger. Many veterans join the Armed Forces at a young age and struggle to be independent with skills such as cooking, leading to poor diets when they leave the military, problems paying bills or taking medication due to memory impairment caused by trauma. This leads to veterans feeling ‘useless’. Not being able to do things has a profound effect on someone’s life causing low esteem and a loss of identity.

“As occupational therapists we help veterans rediscover their skills, we build up confidence by breaking down a task into simple steps, setting achievable goals with the veteran and building on a veteran’s strengths and interests. We provide education either 1:1 or in a group setting as to why the veterans experience these problems and empower them to find solutions to their problems using a cognitive behavioural approach. When we feel the veteran has established adaptive coping strategies we then support them during graded exposure. It might just be walking to the front of the garden and back to start with, then progressing eventually to going to the local shop to buy a newspaper and then finally going to a supermarket.“

Occupational therapists have been helping soldiers since World War I and play a unique role in the holistic treatment of the effects of combat, including physical, psychological, social and emotional. Occupational Therapy was recognised as key to the rehabilitation of World War II soldiers at Stoke Mandeville where it was used to enable and encourage participation in sport to maximise function, ‘restore the activity of the mind’ and develop self confidence. It vastly improved the outlook and recovery of patients with amputations and paralysis due to spinal injuries.

Find out more

The College of Occupational Therapists is the professional body for occupational therapists and support workers and is the voice of occupational therapy in the UK.  Find out more about Occupational Therapy Week at the College of Occupational Therapists site here.

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