By Natalie Coppolelli
For many people with disabilities, the grasp of mental health issues can be pervasive. Could scuba diving be the answer to a healthier mind, and body?
When most people think of scuba diving, they are transported to the image of a diver in a black wetsuit, plunging into underwater caves and gliding through old shipwrecks. Or perhaps the image of a diver slowly sinking towards the seabed, surrounded by a myriad of extraordinary marine life. This was a reality for 56-year-old Erin Gregg until one day, she was no longer able to walk.
For Erin Gregg, life was filled with exploring new sea crevices and diving amongst different sea creatures almost every weekend. However, this life began to quickly slip away from her in 2015, when she was diagnosed with a spinal tumour. When the tumour was removed, Erin was left with paraplegia resulting from spinal cord injury (SCI) and restrained to a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
“I was really sad when I became a paraplegic because I didn’t want to lose that part of my life”, Erin said.
People tend not to realise what they have until it is gone. Walking and running are movements that come naturally and so, we do not think about them often. However for Erin and others with a physical disability, the absence of them have immense psychological and physical impacts.
Erin went from having a healthy life of complete independence to now experiencing changes in her mobility as well as feeling less independent. Despite the acute change to her lifestyle, Erin was determined to hold onto the one thing that made her happiest… scuba diving.
“I decided to [scuba dive] as a disabled diver and I initially thought it would be quite easy until I actually tried it”, Erin said, “the first time [in Manly] was an absolute disaster. I had two instructors with me [but] I got pulled out of the water by doctors who were walking past”.
Following the incident, Erin fell ill and no longer had the desire to pursue her dream of recreational diving as a paraplegic. Then came a beacon of hope.
“I reached out to people and found this cave-diving teacher in Cronulla. [He] has his own company called BeyonDepths”, Erin said.
The cave-diving teacher, Xavier, had never instructed a diver with a disability before and Erin calls herself his “guinea pig”.
Xavier is now qualified to instruct divers with a disability and continues to change people’s lives every day as he works closely with those with disabilities.
Erin encountered countless challenges throughout her journey to becoming a diver with a disability, both physically and socially.
“I’ve lost all the muscle tone in my legs [and now], my legs are really buoyant. I would dive down to go underwater and my legs would literally stay on the surface”, Erin said, “[my legs] had to be weighted”
“Every time I want to dive with a new company, I have to do one or two [smaller] dives with them so that they can see I’m not an idiot. You need to prove yourself pretty much every time”, Erin said.
However, after overcoming these obstacles, Erin is now scuba diving without an assisting diver.
“For me, once I get to the water, I’m independent”, Erin said, “the hardest part for me is not the diving but the logistics. It’s getting into the water from land, into the boat and then the water”
“Now, when I get in the water, I forget I’m disabled…”, Erin said.
Issues such as anxiety and depression often burden people with disabilities due to vast changes in their personal circumstances.
According to a study undertaken by Spinal Cord Injuries Australia (SCIA) and the Australia New Zealand Spinal Cord Injury Network (ANZSCIN), approximately 40% of people with SCI struggle with psychiatric illness.
However, in recent years, numerous studies surrounding the rehabilitative benefits of scuba diving have surfaced.
According to a 2013 article by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), scuba diving “provides a unique environment with many therapeutic characteristics that cannot be replicated on land”.
PADI assisted in a study with the John Hopkins University School of Medicine and the International Centre for Spinal Cord Injury (ICSCI) in 2011. Eight paralysed veterans completed open water diving courses and the results were recorded and averaged. Following the course, the veterans felt a 15% drop in muscle spasticity.
Scuba diving has also been found to improve the mental health of people with disabilities. The ICSCI 2011 study concluded that there was a 15% decrease in obsessive-compulsive disorders in the veteran divers and a similar decrease in symptoms of depression.
“[When I’m in the water], it feels like the shackles are off! It feels like pure freedom. It is the most amazing feeling”, Erin said.
Despite the journey of Erin Gregg, there are many people with are disability who have not benefitted from scuba diving as both a treatment, and a hobby. If more programs like that at BeyonDepths are promoted to people with a disability, we would see an improvement in their mental health and physical rehabilitation.
Paraplegia is the partial or complete paralysis of the legs and lower body, typically caused by spinal injury or disease.
Muscle spasticity in people with disabilities is where muscles are constantly contracted, causing muscle stiffness. Spasticity can interfere with normal movement and speech.