08/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Healing Soliders' Hidden Wounds

In yoga, the warrior pose represents the spiritual strength of the person performing the move.

As Lucy Cimini slowly leads her students into the posture at the Central Mass Yoga Institute, it takes on new meaning.

The men standing firm-footed with their arms outstretched are not your typical yoga students. They are warriors - actual ones, not just spiritual.

What started as a program for veterans of Vietnam and has grown to include those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Cimini's Yoga Warriors program uses the tenets of the meditative discipline to teach coping strategies for post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Men come out the service and they are just so stressed out," she says. "It's very hard to get veterans to come forward and join a group like that. When they're in it though, they know it actually helps them."

Help can be one of the hardest things to ask for, especially for veterans. PTSD has often held stigma in the armed forces. Historically, it was referred to as battle fatigue or shell shock before being officially recognized as an illness in 1980.

We've come a long way in combating that stigma since WWII when Lieutenant General George S. Patton famously slapped a young man who wept in the hospital. But, not only is that stigma still there, the incidence isn't getting any lower.

It's estimated about 20 per cent of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from the illness characterized by flashbacks, anxiety and depression. In January, the U.S. army disclosed they lost more soldiers that month to suicide than enemy fire. Britain this year launched an unprecedented suicide watch that encouraged soldiers to get help.

Asking for help in dealing with this life-altering disorder is tough enough, but actually finding care can be harder. Even though strides have been made in Canada and the United States to correct the problem, both countries suffer from a shortage of providers and compensation systems that are often difficult to navigate.

In 2007, the American Psychological Association pegged the vacancy rate for active-duty psychologists at 40 per cent. While the Army has invested more money into rooting out the problem, shortages still exists.

In Canada, an existing national shortage of psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health nurses and social workers has resulted in year-long waiting lists even outside the military for disorders relating to accidents and physical or sexual abuse.

"For every senior officer or departmental official who told us of initiatives being taken to improve military health care generally, and mental health diagnosis and treatment in particular, we heard at least one junior rank who told us the system was not working for them," said a recent report from the House of Commons Defence Committee on the effects of PTSD. "The phrase 'falling through the cracks' was heard so often it lost its notoriety."

Catching the symptoms of PTSD and depression early is essential to successfully treating and dealing with its effects. But, although emphasis is placed on preparing our troops for the physical aspects of fighting a war, the psychological aspects are often overlooked.

Cimini, whose Yoga Warriors program is currently being expanded across the United States, is now corresponding with an instructor in Iraq who could teach the art to soldiers in the field.

"What we're trying to do is catch the combat stress and give the soldiers the tools to deal with it before they come back," she says. While she is still discussing this expansion, the idea is the kind of initiative that could save money, distress and, most importantly, lives.

Providing adequate care to the men and women of our service is essential. But, it's important to remember not all wounds are visible. Sometimes, those are the wounds the need the most attention.