DURHAM, NC — Cindy Swinkels remembers sitting down with her grandpa, the late Stan Corbett, hearing about his experiences while deployed with the Perth Regiment during the Second World War. And she remembers her grandmother, Vi (who still lives in St. Marys, and is still active with the Legion’s Ladies’ Auxiliary) calling herself “a war bride” of sorts because Stan shipped out for Europe so shortly after they were married.
Swinkels admits, however, that she doesn’t necessarily remember being aware of how much Stan Corbett might have been affected mentally by what he saw at the front.
It’s a bit different looking back on it now, however, from the perspective of someone who was recently named the Coaching Into Care Site Lead at the US Veterans Affairs department’s Mid-Atlantic Region Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center (MIRECC) in Durham, North Carolina. Associated with the prestigious Duke University, MIRECC’s Coaching Into Care program is one of three in the entire country, operating under the direction of the lead centre in Philadelphia.
Her specialty, developed through the research that led to her achievement of a doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology, is sleep patterns and their relationship to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s a specialty which was very influential in securing her the position, as well as making her ideally prepared to deal with the challenges brought to MIRECC by American soldiers returning from the horrors of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“That’s been one of the great things about getting this position,” Swinkels told the Journal Argus in a recent telephone interview. “Thinking back on those conversations with my grandfather, I really feel like I’m giving something back for what he gave me.”
As for her grandmother, she now also feels a closer connection, because she’s certain Vi, as well, was put in the position when the war was over of helping someone — her grandfather — who was at risk of developing PTSD (even though it would be decades before the condition would be accurately identified and researched).
It was far from a direct path that took Swinkels from high school graduation to her leadership role assisting US war veterans. But she insists her post-St. Marys DCVI path — in the hotel and restaurant sector, including a lengthy stint at the Fairmont hotel in the Rocky Mountain resort of Lake Louise — served her well in her subsequent pursuits.
“I was part of ‘Peer Helpers’ when I was in high school,” she noted. That reflected her desire to assist those who, for whatever reason, weren’t keeping up with the rest of their neighbours. And when you work long enough in hotels, she added, “you learn a lot of human behaviour.”
At age 27, she decided to enter post-secondary education, and was accepted at Rochester University in New York State. While there, she took a job working in the university’s sleep research lab. And her interest in the subject took off from there.
She started out doing work about the relationships between sleep and chronic pain. Increasingly, the subjects of her research were returning US war veterans. And increasingly, it wasn’t just the chronic pain that was adding levels of complexity to their troubles with sleep; it was also the pain on the inside due to the what they had seen while deployed.
“A large percentage of (US war veterans) — I would say almost 70 per cent — have sleep issues upon returning,” Swinkels explained. It could be too much sleep, or not enough. But perhaps even more importantly, research has shown strongly that sleep troubles of various kinds happen concurrently with other mental health issues, and especially PTSD.
As a trained psychologist, Swinkels does not prescribe medications, although MIRECC’s link to the Duke University hospital means referrals to physicians can easily be made. Her work centres more around behavioural modification, the coaching of families who contact the MIRECC call centre, and what she calls “sleep retraining.”
Through military basic training, she explains, the body is trained to operate on only four hours of sleep. “So they’re kind of trained to be bad sleepers.” One thing researchers have been focussing on his “sleep retraining programs.”
“It certainly has been eye-opening to learn about what exactly people see and do while they’re deployed,” Swinkels said of the veterans and their families that she now assists.