Roseville nonprofit uses deprivation tank to help treat veterans

By: Brendan Losinski | C&G Newspapers | Published July 2, 2021

 Retired Marine Sgt. James Lucas is among the veterans who have benefited from using a sensory deprivation tank at the Vets Returning Home nonprofit in Roseville.

Retired Marine Sgt. James Lucas is among the veterans who have benefited from using a sensory deprivation tank at the Vets Returning Home nonprofit in Roseville.

Photo provided by Vets Returning Home

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MACOMB COUNTY — Veterans at a Macomb County nonprofit are getting treatment from an unexpected source: a sensory deprivation tank.

Vets Returning Home, based in Roseville, helps veterans cope with homelessness and other issues by giving them a place to stay and access to resources to help them confront health or living issues. The nonprofit has installed its own sensory deprivation float tank in its facility after seeing positive results with the tanks at other locations.

“About four years ago, I got a call from a veteran that used to live here,” said Sandy Bower, the founder and volunteer director of Vets Returning Home. “He and his nephews had opened a deprivation float tank business, the Float Institute. They invited me to come out there, and they gave us four free floats for our veterans a month. It’s at 19 Mile Road and Schoenherr Road.”

As much as Bower appreciated the assistance leant to her by the Float Institute, she was finding that she had far more veterans who would benefit from it than she had free passes, so she could only give the passes to those with the most extreme symptoms or conditions.

“I could use 40 appointments a month and easily go through them,” she said. “So, a year and a half ago, some friends of mine, Tim and Debbie Wiggans, made a generous donation. They asked that if they donated money to Vets Returning Home, what would we use it for. … I told them about the sensory deprivation float tanks and Debbie was all over it. She and her husband gave us $25,000.”

The float tanks work by shutting out all external stimuli such as light and sound. The person in the tank is able to float in body-temperature water filled with epsom salts while in a temperature-controlled room to block out everything.

“It has to be complete silence and complete dark for sensory deprivation,” explained Bower. “The tub is an oversize bathtub filled with 18 inches of water. The water and air are at body temperature so you are floating in the water with 1,000 pounds of medical grade epsom salts in it.”

Similar to a lot of projects, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into Vets Returning Home’s plans to install its own float tank. However, in May, the tank was finally installed and made available to the veterans at the facility.

“As soon as we got all of our ducks in a row working out costs and contractors, COVID hit and the city wasn’t doing permits,” said Bower. “We finally got the permits in line and then the work crew came down with COVID. This has been a year and a half in the making.”

Retired Marine Sgt. James Lucas is among the veterans who has used the float tank. He was exposed to several improvised explosive devices during his service in Afghanistan and said the tank has provided relief for him in ways few other things can.

“Myself, being a disabled veteran, (it) was a nice experience so the tension and stress melted away,” said Lucas. “A lot of times, I get very stressed out or agitated, and that builds up. Finding an outlet for that is a big deal for me. I would highly suggest this for people facing stress or bodily pain. I have a couple of double amputee veterans that I deployed with, and I think this would be great for them.”

“I have anxiety issues and depression, as well as issues with my neck and back,” said fellow veteran Jason White. “Being in those tanks and just having that calm and quiet, it does wonders for your overall mental health. It almost decompresses your entire body, which helps a lot with the physical pain, but, if anything, it does even more for your mental health. … It (also) takes the pressure off of all your joints for a minute so that when you get out, you feel whole.”

Bower said she has had dozens of veterans try the float tank and that, while a handful only rated it as a pleasant experience, most have told her it made a dramatic change in their well-being.

“A lot of our veterans don’t want to go to sleep because they have nightmares, so they try to force themselves to stay awake. When you’re sleep deprived, all sorts of other things like being paranoid or getting anxiety or depression can happen,” she said. “I had one literally drop to the floor and start crying after he tried the float tank for the first time. He said it’s the first time he’s felt normal in 10 years. I had another who was suicidal and this has made a huge difference to him. He’s no longer suicidal. It’s helped him with his sleep issues, his anger issues and his paranoia. ”

Some veterans had doubts about the tank at first, but those doubts were quickly alleviated.

“People might freak out when they hear ‘sensory deprivation’ and think that they can’t be in a dark room or something. It’s all taken care of,” said White. “I can’t describe the benefits of doing it with an open mind.”

“People assume they can’t do it if they have claustrophobia, but this is no different than if you were in a shower with the door closed,” Bower added. “If you ever do need more room, you can just open the door back open at any time. If you don’t like the dark, the light switch is right there.”

Lucas said it does wonders for both mental and physical health.

“I thought it was very enlightening. I am pretty much incapable of floating on my own, so that alone was very interesting. Being able to block out all external stimuli was almost like meditating. It let me relax and reflect and let all the tension I have from injuries I sustained release, or I could focus on areas of my body I usually couldn’t,” he said. “It was kind of like sleeping without sleeping. It was very calming. I know some people freak out about water, but there was no effort to just sit there and relax.”

The float tank at Vets Returning Home is being made available to all veterans for free. It also is open to the public for a small donation to the organization.

“The float tank will be right off of our lobby, which is perfect because it is open to the public, and I don’t want people to have to come into the house,” said Bower. “Any veteran can float for free, and anyone else is welcome to schedule an appointment for a financial contribution to help cover the cost of operating the tank. We haven’t set a price yet.”

White said he hopes people take advantage of it and explore it as a means for dealing with conditions such as trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“PTSD doesn’t just mean you had something happen in combat; it means you suffered a severe traumatic event. You could have been in a car accident and have PTSD. You might start freaking out every time you get into a car now. … This experience can be a huge step for anyone with that trauma.”

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