Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has become a common term and many people have a direct or indirect connection with it. Whether it's a veteran, a victim of abuse directly affected, or a family member you know, the impact can be life-changing. While the initials and symptoms associated with PTSD are well known, the other side of the coin deserves more discussion as this conversation can change lives for the better.
The letters on the other side of this coin are “PTG” which stands for Post Traumatic Growth. The principle behind PTG is that the person struggling with trauma can overcome that struggle and find ways to thrive or grow - either physically or mentally. In short, a serious negative can be turned into one or more promising positives.
Ken Falke is someone who has helped many people achieve PTG. The 21-year-old Navy veteran became involved with the cause because he heard a lot of talk about PTSD, but he didn't hear too many solutions that could make a lasting difference.
"We don't think traditional mental health care works for the population we serve," Falke said. "The system is just broken."
Ken Falke is Founder and Chair of the Boulder Crest Foundation, a nonprofit organization established by Falke with a mission to help veterans, first responders and their families "rediscover hope, purpose and faith in the future." There are three facilities that report to this organization - a retreat location in Arizona and another and research institute in Bluemont, Virginia. Falcon and his wife actually donated 37 acres of their own land to create the Virginia site. Falke's commitment to helping people achieve PTG goes well beyond donating land to start this endeavor. He co-wrote a book with Josh Goldberg called Struggle Well and remains dedicated to the study of PTSD and PTG.
“That's really what we focus on and explain to people. Although trauma can be debilitating initially, it should not be so in the long run. They should learn from it and become better versions of ourselves,” explained Ken Falke. "We are committed to changing the way mental health care is delivered," Falke said. One way his team is able to fulfill that commitment is by allowing veterans and first responders, along with their immediate families, to stay at one of their retreats for a week. Boulder Crest, the nation's first privately funded wellness center for combat veterans, provides those they serve with a cabin, food and services at their locations free of charge. The Goal: Help those entering Boulder Crest learn and achieve PTG levels so they can overcome PTSD in both the short and long term.
Courtesy of Ken Falke
"The science of post-traumatic growth suggests that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger," Falke said. The originators of the term are Richard Tedeschi and Laurence Calhoun of the University of rth Carolina-Charlotte, and their research originally focused on families who have lost children to cancer. Falke's efforts at Boulder Crest are proven to benefit those who have worked in the armed services and first responders.
"We focus on four areas - mind, body, spirituality and financial well-being," he said. The visual graphic they use to explain this is a triangle with a sphere in the middle. The three corners are mind, body and financial well-being. The sphere in the middle is spirituality. The team at Boulder Crest does this through a variety of programs they offer, which are also free.
All four are equally important, but many of the successes many Falke guests saw first came from focusing on the body through exercise and fitness. Many of the retiring veterans with PTSD don't pay as much attention to this component.
"These are men and women who were very fit before they came out of uniform, most of them at least," he shared. Because of this, they can be affected by numerous other issues such as weight gain and other health issues that can cause even more problems later in life. That's why Boulder Crest has plenty of exercise-focused activities like gardening, archery, hiking, and fitness classes like TRX they partner with, band workouts, and yoga sessions. Why TRX, Bands and Yoga? These methods are challenging, but these forms of exercise are easier to set up and do anywhere, anytime. This will both eliminate an excuse and empower the people Falcon serves because they can fulfill the obligation without having to go to a gym.
“Things like TRX and bands, that's both simple and vertical. Then the goal with yoga, especially with aging vets, isn't how much you can curl or bench press. It's about being able to bend down and tie your shoes.”
The focus on physical improvement in their PTSD can translate to an improvement in self-confidence, which can then improve spirituality and perhaps even financial well-being by improving career opportunities.
“Our body is designed to heal itself. When you exercise there are great chemicals that can be released by the brain and all of those things help with depression and anxiety.”
Boulder Crest even has a full staffed kitchen. Preparing healthy meals during their stay can be an important step in helping people create their own nutritional strategies to implement once they return home.
“Our chefs attend a course here called 'Food is Medicine'. We believe that if you put the right nutrition into your body, it will be worth it," said Falke. "If the food you eat is junk, then it won't work."
At the entrance to Boulder Crest is an arch that reads "Thank You Heroes." As a veteran himself, he wants everyone who enters to know that he, his board, and the staff who work there all appreciate the service they have rendered our country. Another tribute seen throughout the property is a famous quote associated with warriors.
"We must remember that one man is very much like another and that the best is he who has been educated in the strictest school." – Thucydides
Falke's efforts have already positively impacted thousands of people they have served and they are preparing for more in the coming weeks.
“We have a great track record. We measure scientifically and try to compare this with traditional methods. We believe this is three to five times more effective than traditional mental health care.”
If you or someone you know is a veteran or first responder who can benefit from the services Boulder Crest offers or for more information about the Boulder Crest Foundation, visit www.bouldercrest.org.