Is outdoor peer support valuable? Measuring the success of Trojan’s Trek

Ms Kendall Bird recently presented the findings of her Masters project looking at the efficacy of Trojan’s Trek as an intervention method. Her thesis, entitled Contemporary Veterans’ Experience of a Peer Outdoor Support Therapy (POST) Program’ was presented at the Australiasian Military Medicine Association National Conference in Adelaide on Nov 2nd 2013.

Her abstract will be published in the Proceedings from the conference in the next edition of the Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health (JMVH). The full research article and results are due to be published in a Special Edition on Australian Mental Health early in 2014, with a review of POST programs approved to be published in the Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health. Kendall is a Provisional Psychologist currently completing her Masters of Psychology (Clinical) at the University of South Australia. Here she tells us about her findings

There’s something to be said for a program which attracts contemporary veterans and leaves a lasting impression on its participants. Even more so, when many other alternatives discover that attracting participants to any form of therapy is an uphill battle.

In embarking on my Masters’ thesis; an evaluation of Trojan’s Trek, I wasn’t sure what I was going to find when looking beyond the positive verbal testimonies. I have been reminded that effecting change to one’s life when you’re suffering; is deeper, more meaningful and more complex than just receiving one type of quick therapy.

The fundamental question was: “Is outdoor, remote, peer support a valuable adjunct to therapy for veterans?“
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If the majority of services offered in Australia are either one-to-one (professional to individual) or in a group setting (professional to many); what can a peer-to-peer approach add? It appears, quite a lot.

Studies in the USA have found that veterans mentoring veterans is more meaningful and carries more weight than mentoring among non-veterans. In addition, this form of mentoring maintains veteran engagement and increases their access to other mental health services (Travis et al, 2010; Greden et al, 2010). The USA, Canada and the UK all have peer-based services for veterans in some form, and in Canada this approach is integrated into the Veterans’ National Health Services.

Having completed my thesis using results from the men who participated in South Australia’s Trojan’s Trek, I found there was a substantial shift and sustained improvement in their self-reported mental health and wellbeing (depression, anxiety, stress, life satisfaction, self-efficacy) maintained even two months after completing the Trek. In general, the veterans commenced the trek with extremely low wellbeing and left with their satisfaction with life and anxiety the same as non-military people. In fact, they maintained a sense of self-ability above that of non-military, with reduced depression and stress. Now that’s impressive, this is very significant, I thought

I was also privileged to access the participant’s journals which were completed while they were on the trek. On reading these, it became clear to me that change happened for these men because they were immersed’ for six days with their peers. In addition, informal outdoor activities added to formal peer mentoring sessions strengthened the outcomes. What is vital was the shared opportunities to apply skills and self-reflection and feel understood by others in not only what was experienced in the past, but in looking forward to how they viewed the future.

While there will be criticisms and pitfalls to peer support, when well-managed and structured there’s something very promising about this approach; something real, something meaningful. And if it means one more veteran taking that step to seek more help, one less suicide, one more veteran who bridges that transition into finding ways to have a meaningful life post-military with a little less mental pain and panic, then it’s an approach to watch evolve and spread as an adjunct to other therapies.
As one participant quoted: Really, what some of us have done is put into practice a lot of concepts our medical practitioners have been talking to us about.’

By Ms. Kendall Bird

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