Dan Houlihan in an ocean environment in full scuba gear.

Dan Houlihan Explores the Depths of SCUBA and OT

OTD candidate combines his love of diving with his desire to help combat veterans

By Leslie B.G. Goldberg, J’84

Occupational Therapy Doctoral (OTD) student Dan Houlihan, MS, OTR/L, focuses on a different type of adaptive sport—not on the slopes but in the water. An avid scuba diver and certified SCUBA instructor, practicing occupational therapist, and lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, Houlihan understands the calming effect being under the sea can have. After starting in the Tufts OTD program in fall 2014, he went in search of an opportunity to combine his love of diving with his desire to help combat veterans be successful in returning to civilian communities.

In 2014, Houlihan discovered Operation Blue Pride, a scuba group for veterans that was looking to start a chapter in Boston. He now supports the group as an instructor, support diver, and public presenter. For his OTD leadership project, he is studying the lived experience of veterans involved in scuba, paying particular attention to the supports, barriers, and motivations of their engagement.

There is an urgent need to find leisure activities that will engage the varied interests and capabilities of these veterans and potentially support reintegration.

Dan Houlihan, MS, OTR/L
OTD Candidate

Houlihan hopes his research will offer insight into how scuba diving can help veterans reintegrate into their communities after they return from combat. With nearly 1.5 million veterans of recent combat reintegrating into civilian life over the next five years, “there is an urgent need to find leisure activities that will engage the varied interests and capabilities of these veterans and potentially support reintegration,” he explains. While many veterans do transition to civilian life with little trouble, nearly half experience difficulty with physical and mental health issues. Research suggests that nature-based leisure activities with peers can help returning veterans improve their health, well-being, and participation in daily life.

A group of Operation Blue Pride participants on a boat.Dan Houlihan (back, third from right) with Operation Blue Pride participants (photo by Alex Shure).

Houlihan says scuba diving fits that description perfectly. “Scuba divers must ingrain skills to operate adaptive gear and communicate with one another in challenging environments.  Many veterans find comfort and even familiarity in this type of activity. It is widely adaptable for individuals with an array of abilities and helps them enjoy the beauty of nature. It also requires mutual reliance on peers—that ‘life or death’ interaction veterans are very familiar with,” he explains.

The “blue space” under the water also provides a calming therapeutic milieu for this population, many of whom avoid the traditional therapies and support services offered by the VA and other groups. “Diving offers a completely different sensory motor world. It’s unweighted; locomotion and sound are different. You have to focus on what’s right in front of you, on your positioning, on your breathing,” he explains. “For some it’s an adrenaline rush and for others it’s quite calming. Either way, diving is a great equalizer.”

Reprinted from the fall 2016 Occupational Therapy newsletter

Photos by Alex Shure.