As we begin to survey the damage from Hurricane Sandy, a symptom of the global warming that has been religiously ignored in the course of the presidential debates, our thoughts turn toward the impact of trauma: Sandy's trauma involves man's influence on nature, but in war we have trauma that is purely the result of mankind's inability to live in peace.
About 2.4 million soldiers have cycled through the wars in Iraq and Afganistan. One third or more of those returning from battlefields suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) or depression. Suicide has overtaken combat as the leading cause of death in the Army. [That stark statement is worth a second read.] To date, treatment of PTSD has centered primarily on cognitive processing therapy (CPT), a labor-intensive approach that places veterans in a one-to-one relationship with a therapist. But only 40 percent who enroll actually benefit from the therapy, and even if it were more effective, the vast numbers of soldiers in need would require thousands of additional psychologists.
Tina Rosenberg writes in the New York Times of new approaches to treatment. Instead of using the one-to-one model, these new therapies work in groups. And instead of rehashing the images that gave rise to PTSD, these therapies focus on the present moment, long after the trauma has occurred. The Washington-based Center for Mind-Body Medicine has designed a course that involves conscious breathing, meditation, mindfulness, guided visual imagery and biofeedback. Other therapies include acupuncture and yoga. The Center has a proven track record, working with Kosovo high school students and Gaza residents. The techniques appear to work: following the ten-week program, participants in Kosovo had significantly lower symptoms of PTSD than non-participants.
In Gaza, center staff trained over 400 group leaders, who were able to provide therapeutic interventions with 50,000 people. Because of its group approach and relatively short training cycle, large numbers of people can be reached quickly and at very low cost. And retention levels within the training are much higher than those for individual counseling.
In comparison to CPT therapy, the group approach stresses practical coping skills. While there may still be some social stigma attached to participation in individual therapy, there is no such negativity associated with group work - aside, perhaps, from its New Age aura. Most important, the tools being taught are universal: we all experience stress and some degree of trauma and we all need practical techniques to help us adjust to the pace of modern life. Teaching life skills such as mindfulness and meditation does not isolate PTSD sufferers from everyone else; to the contrary, the fundamental lesson is that we all experience suffering and we are all in this together.
Surely these same group techniques would be helpful to devastated citizens recovering from this week's unprecedented natural disaster.
Teach Politicians to Breath?
I often wonder what would happen if our politicians were taught a few mindfulness exercises. Perhaps there would be more compassion in the world. Perhaps law and policy makers would pause a minute before they spoke, before they ridiculed their opponents or declared war on another country. Perhaps the elected officials who find life sacred at the moment of conception but insignificant once birth occurs would empathize with the plight of women compelled to carry a rapist's child.
These are agitating thoughts, indeed. Time to take a deep breath, sit still for a moment, and just say "om."