After coming home from the Iraq War, Brandon Kuehn struggled to manage his survivor’s guilt and the transition back to civilian life. Eventually, Brandon hit his breaking point and knew that he needed to do something to manage his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
His healing process lead him to peacefulness of the outdoors; specifically hiking. Brandon soon realized that hiking gave him the coping mechanisms he so desperately needed to manage his PTSD. In an attempt to further “walk off the war,” Brandon decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail
Spruce Tone Films followed Brandon along his journey. The hike resulted in a short film called Constant Thought which follows Brandon on his journey to hike the trail and manage his mental health. You can watch the film below:
Regrettably, Brandon’s story isn’t rare. Luckily, everyday veterans are learning about the benefits of getting outside. The clean air, solitude and serenity of being in nature does wonders for recreation therapy.
What is Recreational Therapy?
Recreational therapy can be anything from hiking to surfing, fly fishing to bike riding, anything that gets a person outdoors with the goal of alleviating symptoms of a mental disorder. Current research indicates a significant number of positive health outcomes resulting from recreational therapy including1:
- Improvement in Physical Health Status
- Improvement in Psychosocial Status
- Improvement in Cognitive Status
- Improvement in Life, Recreation & Community Activities
It may seem odd to prescribe a hike to someone to cure their depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues, but the truth is structured outdoor activity can be really beneficial. PTSD is one area recreational therapy is changing lives. After months and even years in a high stress environment recreational therapy teaches veterans how to be calm.
A real life example of the benefits of recreational therapy
In the short film Constant Thought, Brandon says “Being outside provides a release from the noises in your head and the worries of your life” “Being outdoors won’t cure you, but it will help mitigate the effects of PTSD on your everyday life”. The healing effects of hiking Brandon speaks about is a sentiment expressed by many people who utilize recreational therapy.
Recreational therapy and PTSD
Recreation therapy has been associated with various beneﬁcial outcomes for injured service members. The beneﬁts documented include, but are not limited to2:
- Improved mood states.
- Decreases in PTS (post traumatic stress), depression, and anxiety symptoms.
- Increases in motivation, social support and camaraderie.
- Improved perceived health and perception of disability.
- Increased marital satisfaction
- Improved psychosocial well-being, and community reintegration.
Participants in recreational therapy programs often call the programs life altering.
An unfortunate stigma
Symptoms of PTSD have been documented as early as the 1600’s3. Although we have known about PTSD for hundreds of years there is a large stigma around suffering from PTSD and seeking help. Veterans are often afraid to seek help because they are afraid of seeming weak or being treated differently 4.
A quarter of veterans returning home from military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan experience varying degrees of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)5, yet 60% of military personnel who experience mental health problems do not seek help4.
Brandon discusses his survivor’s guilt in Constant Thought and speaks about the stigma surrounding people who suffer from PTSD. He says “You’re trained not to have issues, you’re trained not to feel”. His first person perspective gives a sobering look at the reality for many people.
A hopeful future
PTSD and other mental health issues are slowly becoming de-stigmatized. Talking about these issues and highlighting stories like Brandons helps shift the narrative around mental health. Recreational therapy is a great option for people who aren’t satisfied with conventional methods of dealing with mental illness. Like I said earlier, it seems strange to prescribe a hike, but when you really think about it, it’s not weird at all. Being outdoors is a way a lot of people decompress, reflect, and heal.
If this topic interests you, below is a list of organizations that utilize recreational therapy to help veterans and their families.
Founded in 2005, Camp Patriot is a 5-Star rated 501c3 non-profit organization with a mission to empower and thank wounded and disabled military veterans of all generations though outdoor programs. They have a wide variety of programs that include activities like animal husbandry, cross country skiing, trail running/hiking, and much more.
Quotes from veterans who have participated in their programs:
- "Camp Patriot allows wounded service members to become active again, challenging themselves and accomplish tasks that they consider no longer possible. A great organization."
- "The centerpiece of my successful transition back home."
- "One of the best experiences of my life"
Warrior Expeditions gives veterans everything they need to complete a long distance outdoor expedition. They also provide a $300 monthly stipend to purchase resupply items during the journey. A 3-6 month expedition allows veterans time to decompress and process their military service. Participating in the expedition program gives veterans the opportunity to connect with other veterans, members of the community, and allows for a smoother transition back to civilian life.
Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center
The Heroic Military Program is designed to help wounded veterans transition into a life with a disability. Family members are welcome to join in mountain retreats, river trips, and various other activities. The program is offered at low or no cost to active military members and veterans.
Higher Ground hosts eight week-long sports camps annually, each completely free of charge to veterans and their supporters. This organization gives veterans physical skills, confidence, and coping strategies necessary for a successful reintegration into their families and home communities. The camp facilitates an environment where people can connect and share their struggles.
- FAQ ABOUT Recreational Therapy (RT).” FAQ About Recreational Therapy - American Therapeutic Recreation Association
- Vella, Elizabeth Jane, Briana Milligan, and Jessie Lynn Bennett. "Participation in outdoor recreation program predicts improved psychosocial well-being among veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder: A pilot study." Military Medicine178.3 (2013): 254-260.
- Jensen, Kelly. "Influence of exercise and physical activity on the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder: a qualitative study." (2017).
- Sharp, Marie-Louise, et al. "Stigma as a barrier to seeking health care among military personnel with mental health problems." Epidemiologic reviews 37.1 (2015): 144-162.
- Lanning, Beth A., and Nancy Krenek. "Examining effects of equine-assisted activities to help combat veterans improve quality of life." Journal of Rehabilitation Research & Development 50.8 (2013): vii-vii.
Short Film Credits
Directed & Produced by: Palmer Morse & Matt Mikkelsen
Cinematography: Palmer Morse
Additional Cinematography: Matt Mikkelsen
Edited by: Palmer Morse & Matt Mikkelsen
Sound Mixing & Design: Cassandra Medcalf & Matt Mikkelsen
Original Music: Ben Sollee
Color Correction: Kent Pritchett
Design: Allison Cuozzo
About the Author
Olivia Magee oversees Social Media at Zpacks and helps monitor trends within the industry. Her contributions to the hiking community includes her work with the American Conservation Experience where she performed trail maintenance in the Smoky's and across the Southeast.