Alternative PTSD therapies finding a home in Columbia

Wednesday, October 16, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:49 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Peggy has not left Anthony Reeder's side since the Iraq war veteran got her two months ago from a PTSD service dog training program.

COLUMBIA — For Anthony Reeder, 27, a veteran of the war in Iraq and a secondary-education student at Columbia College, his service dog, Peggy, is like his "battle buddy."

Veterans and shelter dogs

After leaving the Army in 2012, Adam Morton was diagnosed with PTSD. He joined a program through the Central Missouri Humane Society that pairs shelter dogs with veterans. The veterans help train the dogs, and some become PTSD service dogs. For Morton, his dog, Quincy, helps ease his anxiety in crowded places and provides much-needed companionship. Read more in Vox Magazine.

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As Reeder stood on MU's Francis Quadrangle one recent afternoon, Peggy jumped a little and barked whenever she saw someone approaching him from behind. Holding the dog leash tightly in his hand, Reeder would quickly turn to see if it was someone he knew.

The dog has not left his side for a second since Reeder got her two months ago. Through her body language, she has become his navigator in a world he sometimes finds terrifying.

Reeder received Peggy from a PTSD service dog training program, one of the alternative treatments of PTSD available in Columbia. Like Reeder, people with PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, have a greater number of choices of alternative therapies than ever for coping with the disorder. Some of these treatments in Columbia include mindfulness programs like yoga, Qigong and tai chi, the service dog training program, and therapeutic horse riding.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

PTSD can occur after a person has been exposed to a traumatic event, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs website. Trauma is defined by the American Psychological Association as an emotional response to a terrible event.

"When I went to Iraq, I was constantly fearing for my life for nine months straight, just fear. We didn't sleep much. There were helicopters running near our heads the whole time," Reeder said. "We saw some pretty gruesome scenes out there that I wish I had never seen."

Reeder joined the Navy in 2005 and was deployed to Iraq for nine months in 2007. After he returned, he underwent knee surgery and then was honorably discharged from the Navy in 2009.

During his time in the Navy, Reeder used alcohol as self-medication for nightmares. He finally realized he was suffering from PTSD after he stopped drinking in 2009.

After nearly four years of treatment, Reeder still has episodes from time to time.

"Every time I walk by the smoke stacks, the first thing I do is scan the smoke stacks," Reeder said. That's because the power plant stacks remind him of the towers used by snipers in Iraq, where he learned to stay vigilant and make himself a difficult target.

In class, when he sees someone rummaging in a backpack, he immediately becomes alert, fearing the backpack will blow up in his face, as sometimes happened in Iraq.

"It's hard to turn that training off," Reeder said.

Alternative PTSD treatments

While experts estimate 11 percent to 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from PTSD, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, it has been until fairly recently a taboo subject in military culture. Many soldiers believe that to be strong, they can't have emotions, which could prevent them from seeking treatment, said Grant O'Neal, a licensed psychologist and the PTSD clinical team leader at Truman Veterans Hospital. Sometimes those who are diagnosed with PTSD might be discharged from the Army, he said.

However, O'Neal explained that as many younger-generation veterans have returned from the battlefield, the stigma of mental illness has decreased, and treatment of PTSD has become more acceptable.

Traditionally, there have been two mainstream treatments for PTSD, according to a Department of Veterans Affairs guide for PTSD treatment: psychotherapy and medication. Mainstream treatments focus on people's cognition and behaviors and try to help them confront and change their thoughts about traumas, according to the guide.

Combined with mainstream treatments, alternative treatments of PTSD are also offered to help people deal with stress disorders in a more general way, O'Neal said.

Alternative treatments for PTSD, also called complementary and alternative medicine, are being used in about 40 percent of PTSD cases, according to a study by the National Center for PTSD. Mind-body treatments, including meditation, relaxation and exercise therapy such as yoga, were the most frequently reported and used as alternative treatments.

A sense of presence

Mindfulness training is offered in both Truman Veterans Hospital and True North, a women's shelter in Columbia for domestic violence victims.

Many veterans with PTSD tend to associate things in the present with what they have experienced on the battlefield. At Truman Veterans Hospital, they are trained to pay attention to what is happening in the moment through mindfulness, O'Neal said.

The idea of mindfulness comes from Buddhism, and it helps patients separate the past from the present, O'Neal said. After four to five weeks of mindfulness training, some veterans described that they had found a "space" that will allow them to think before they react to their emotions, he said.

Yoga, tai chi and Qigong are all mindfulness training and available at the veterans hospital. Although they are not part of the hospital services yet, veterans who suffer from PTSD can choose to participate individually as they like, O'Neal said.

At True North, mindfulness training is offered to help female victims recover from their traumatic experiences.

"Learning to be mindful is better for our victims to cope with anxiety," said Kim Scates, a counselor at True North. "Learning to be very present and ground oneself can be very helpful."

 The comfort of animals

Aside from mindfulness, human-animal interaction can also help people with PTSD ease their way back into society.

The PTSD service dog training program was launched in conjunction with a two-year study on the mutual benefits of veterans training shelter dogs by Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at MU. The study ends this fall, and the center will continue to pair veterans with dogs donated by Central Missouri Humane Society.

Veterans who participate in the program will be taught how to train a service dog for other veterans with PTSD and are eligible to get a service dog for themselves if they need one, said Jessica Bibbo, a research assistant at the research center.

"Peggy is very loveable, and she is very helpful," Reeder said. He has been training Peggy himself since he received her from the program.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs website, one PTSD symptom is avoidance of crowds. The way service dogs help people cope with crowds is to create a buffer so that the veteran doesn't feel hemmed in, Bibbo said.

"Before I got Peggy, I couldn't go outside of my house very often," Reeder said. With Peggy at his side, he can go to restaurants or stores more frequently.

Some veterans are finding comfort in horses and riding. In Columbia, Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center helps people with various issues, including PTSD.

Keith Kryger, 70, a Vietnam veteran, has been coming to Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center for two years. Before he received treatment for PTSD, Kryger didn't share his emotions much with his wife, and he struggled with nightmares.

"I have really noticed a difference now," said Ann Kryger, his wife, who speaks on his behalf because he has suffered two head injuries, multiple strokes and is hard of hearing.

Keith Kryger was stationed in Saigon, Vietnam, from 1965 to 1966, and he was in the Army for 25 years. He came to Missouri with his wife after he left the Army, and he decided to try Cedar Creek after taking two other PTSD classes at the veterans hospital.

"It really opens him up now," she said. "He has a lot of people to talk to besides his family, and every eight weeks it's different people, because every session has different volunteers."

This fall, several veterans, including Kryger, go to Cedar Creek from the veterans hospital every Thursday and spend an hour with their horse buddies.

On their first class this fall, the veterans rode horses around a circle in a barn, one after another, each with four to five volunteers helping them.

As they stretched out their arms and lifted them up above their heads on the horseback, the background music played one of the Beatles' songs, "Let it be, let it be. Let it be, let it be. Whisper words of wisdom, let it be."

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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Kevin Gamble October 16, 2013 | 2:10 p.m.

A wonderful story, well reported. Kudos to those who put it together, and best wishes and gratitude to all those depicted.

A small question: can someone identify the breed of the dog, Peggy?

(Report Comment)
Heidi Li October 16, 2013 | 4:40 p.m.

Hi Kevin, this is Heidi Li, the reporter for this story, and to answer your question, Peggy is an American Stafford Terrier. Thank your for your interest in this story.

(Report Comment)

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