Unique horse-assisted therapy may help veterans cope with PTSD, says study

Unique horse-assisted therapy may help veterans cope with PTSD, says study

As per the National Center for PTSD, 11 to 20 percent veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In case of the Gulf War, PTSD strikes 12 percent of veterans in a given year. An estimated 30 percent of Vietnam War veterans suffer from PTSD at some point in their lifetime.

Data published by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in August 2016 shows that in 2014, an average of 20 veterans committed suicide every day. An alarming 65 percent of suicides was among middle-aged and older veterans. Although veterans comprised 8.5 percent of the American population aged 18 and above, they accounted for 18 percent of all suicide deaths among U.S. adults in 2014.

PTSD has been shown to be a high-risk factor leading to suicide among veterans. Researchers from the Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and New York State Psychiatric Institute have undertaken a study to assess the efficacy and safety of reducing PTSD symptoms using horse-assisted therapy. In the past, “Gold standard” treatment options for PTSD, including prolonged exposure (PE) therapy and cognitive processing therapy (CPT), faced significant drop-out rates. Both PE and CPT were intended to serve as short-term treatment options, with 12 sessions prescribed for CPT and 8-15 sessions for PE.  However, it has been established that most individuals with PTSD do not complete these treatments in entirety.

Horses may mirror some emotions experienced by veterans with PTSD

Dr. Prudence Fisher, assistant professor of clinical psychiatric social work in the department of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and co-lead investigator of the study, states that horses are highly social animals like humans and show sensitivity to others’ emotional states. According to her, besides being patient, horses are known for their enhanced state of vigilance and awareness towards potential threats, quite similar to symptoms of PTSD. In this respect, horses may mirror some of the emotions experienced by people with PTSD.

Horse-assisted therapy experts state that veterans can develop stress-management skills and feel a sense of calm by walking and grooming the animals. Horses help fill the void of relationships and connections. As part of the therapy, veterans do not ride horses since that signifies control over the animal, which is not the aim of the therapy.

The study has enlisted more than 60 veterans who have been diagnosed with PTSD. The treatment involves eight weekly therapy sessions at the Bergen County Equestrian Center in Leonia, New Jersey. Small groups of individuals with PTSD are treated by a mental health therapist and an equine therapy specialist. An expert in handling horses is present to safeguard the patients while they groom and feed the animals. Patients are monitored before, during and after the therapy to ascertain if they are strong enough to recover from and control PTSD symptoms. 

More research needed towards equine therapy’s benefit in treating mental health problems

According to Dr. Yuval Neria, professor of medical psychology (in psychiatry and epidemiology) at CUMC, director of Columbia’s PTSD research program and a co-lead investigator of the study, equine therapy is known to be useful in treating a diverse range of mental health problems, including PTSD and depression. However, its efficacy has not been satisfactorily proved. Equine therapy programs are not standardized and use a variety of content and delivery formats, leading to inconsistent results.

If the results of the study are encouraging, the researchers anticipate conducting further studies to compare the effectiveness of horse-assisted therapy with other PTSD treatments. They would also like to assess the link between such a treatment and structural and functional changes in the brain.

PTSD can affect any individual at any age. This includes war veterans, children and people who have been through a traumatic incident such as physical or sexual assault, abuse, accident or trauma. If you or your loved one is suffering from PTSD or other mental disorders, contact the Florida Mental Health Helpline to find evidence-based rehab centers in Florida. Call us at our 24/7 helpline number 866-846-5588 or chat online to know more about the finest treatment for mental disorders in Florida.

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