PTSD sufferer Todd Finger gets the guitar basics.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious problem for anyone who has experienced a life-threatening event, especially soldiers who have endured combat. Symptoms include flashbacks and recurring nightmares, as well as memory difficulties and feelings of isolation and depression. Psychotherapy can help, but it doesn't always provide a sense of achievement or community.
Dan Van Buskirk, a Vietnam veteran who calls Milwaukee home, discovered an unlikely source of relief: guitar lessons.
Together with his guitar teacher, Patrick Nettesheim, Van Buskirk founded a nonprofit organization called Guitars for Vets, which aims to bring music instruction to veterans with psychological disorders like PTSD and schizophrenia. The initiative began in Milwaukee in April of last year, then expanded to Madison this September.
"Dan [Van Buskirk] saw that learning guitar helped with his own PTSD symptoms," says Mark Noxon, a guitar teacher for the program's Madison branch. The activity gave Van Buskirk "focus and a sense of happiness, which is a major reason he decided to start the program, to help other people who are dealing with something similar."
Since September, Noxon has witnessed some impressive improvements among his seven students, most of whom take lessons at the veterans' centers on Williamson Street and Brooks Street.
"I have one student who's about my age, 26 years old, who was very, very quiet and reserved when I first met him," recalls Noxon, who also plays bass for Madison's Lucas Cates Band. "After a couple of weeks, he was like a completely different individual: He came in looking sharp, acting excited and talking more. I'm not a therapist by any means, but interacting with him as a musician, I can tell that he's gotten motivated and that the music helps him to focus and communicate and connect with people."
Though more research needs to be done to confirm the connection between music lessons and psychological relief, preliminary studies have shown that musical activities can be beneficial to veterans with mental illness.
Many veterans who participate in music therapy programs, ranging from group listening exercises to one-on-one instruction such as that Guitars for Vets provides, report decreased levels of anxiety, increased levels of self-esteem and fewer episodes of panic attacks, nightmares and flashbacks. Many others find these activities to be one of the only ways they feel connected to their surroundings - and other people - after they return from combat.
While Guitars for Vets is not officially a therapy program, it aims to provide similar benefits - and a sense of personal achievement through learning - to its participants.
PTSD is a growing public health problem. A 2003 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that one in six soldiers returning from Iraq suffers from this disorder specifically, and a 2005 study by the national Veterans Administration found that 20% of veterans from the Iraq War return home with a significant, diagnosable psychological problem. These numbers may even be an understatement: As more soldiers return to civilian life, the number seeking mental health services continues to rise, despite stigma about seeking help.
Guitars for Vets cofounder Nettesheim says that developing a skill and building a lifelong interest in learning music can do a great deal to improve veterans' sense of self, as well as their ability to interact with others despite an often-debilitating ailment.
"The real key is to be empathetic and cultivate the enthusiasm of wanting to play the instrument," he says. "The guitar is a catalyst for positive human interaction. We really think of our mission as befriending suffering comrades, one at a time, and helping them to heal, or at least cope a bit better."
Guitars for Vets' Steve Benford (left) and Patrick Nettesheim (right) share the music with Chancey (center) and Todd Finger (below).