Friday January 18, 2019

Veterans With PTSD Find Relief in Native American Rituals

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Blackfeet military veteran and spiritual advisor Roger Vielle during sweat ceremony for Vietnam veterans in Glacier National Park, Montana, September 2017. VOA

“I wasn’t the kind of guy you’d want to meet in a dark alley.”

That’s how U.S. Army veteran Michael Carroll, 39, from Spokane, Wash., described himself after coming home in 2004 after serving 18 months in Iraq.

He was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and given an honorable discharge.

“The transition from military to civilian life was definitely unpleasant,” he said. “I was extremely temperamental and hostile, and I lashed out a lot. Anything could trigger me — sounds to smells to seeing trash on the side of the road,” a reminder of explosive devices used against coalition forces in the Iraq war.

Over the next few years, he underwent the standard treatment for PTSD — psychotherapy and medication — which he said did him more harm than good.

ALSO READ: Missouri Senator plans to introduce new Bill in support of World War II Veterans

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Sweat lodge constructed by veterans during a Veterans Community Response retreat, Flying B Ranch, Kamiah, Idaho. Courtesy: Michael Carroll. VOA

In 2009, while undergoing therapy at the Spokane Veterans Center, he heard about an outdoor recreational retreat for traumatized veterans, organized and funded by a group of Spokane Valley firefighters.

“And that’s where I encountered my first sweat lodge,” Carroll said. “It blew my mind. And it saved my life.”

Bringing veterans home

Since ancient times, Native American and Alaskan Natives have held warriors in high esteem and have developed a wide variety of prayers, ceremonies and rituals to honor returning soldiers and ease them back into community life.

One of the most common is the “sweat,” a ritual steam bath believed to have originated among Plains Indians that is practiced today by many tribes, with variations according to individual tribal cultures and traditions.

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This 1898 photo by an unknown photographer shows a group of Dakota tribe members posing for the camera inside a sweat lodge. The raised coverings indicate that a sweat ceremony is not underway. VOA

The U.S. Veterans Administration has recognized the value of sweats to Native service members, and since the 1990s, has allowed them to conduct sweats at several VA medical centers across the country. It was only a matter of time before non-Native veterans began to take notice.

“In college, I was a sociology major, and I learned about the importance of the sacred, the ritual and the ceremony,” said Darrin Coldiron, a Spokane firefighter and president of Veterans Community Response (VCR), an all-volunteer group that hosts several retreats a year. “I learned that in so many societies, when you send a warrior off, there’s a ceremony, and you bring them home with ceremony.”

Craig Falcon, a member of the Blackfeet tribe who conducts ceremonies at VCR retreats, explained how the sweat has been used in his culture to help warriors readjust to civilian life.

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Photo shows cultural advisor Craig Falcon (R) blessing Roger Vielle, both members of Blackfeet tribe, during a Vietnam veterans retreat in Glacier National Park, Montana, September 2017. VOA

“You come back from war with things attached to you,” he said. “And some of those things may not be good. They could be memories. Or It could be somebody you killed, and that person attaches himself to you and comes home with you. Ceremonies help wash those things off, send them back to where they came from and get you back to who you are.”

Roger Vielle, also Blackfeet, has served on VCR’s board as spiritual adviser since 2009. At first, he wasn’t sure how non-Natives would handle the sweat.

“Some of the stories they share afterward and some of the things that have happened to them during the sweat are like — ”

He struggled to find words.

“They say something happens there,” he said. “They’ve gotten in touch with something. And I tell them, ‘I’m not the one doing it. I’m just facilitating it. You did the work. You did the prayers.’”

VCR retreats are funded entirely by donors and cost the participants nothing. That’s because no legitimate tribal healer would ever charge money for a ceremony.

Private and sacred

Carroll admitted to being skeptical — and a little fearful — of his first sweat.

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Photo shows interior of a typical sweat lodge. VOA

ALSO READ: US organises Ceremony to Honour World War II Veterans at American and Chinese World War II Memorial Monument

“But then you go inside the sweat lodge, and of course the herbs are dropped on the rocks, and the drum is starting to play,” he said. “Then you pray and you begin to feel the toxins pour out of your body. And a lot of time, there’s a sense of another presence, something in that lodge besides you and the other people gathered there.”

Vielle and Falcon were reluctant to share too many details about the ceremonies, which are sacred to their culture.

“Non-Natives are really exploiting our way of life and our ceremonies, grabbing them and selling them,” said Falcon, recalling the 2009 deaths of three people at an Arizona sweat ceremony conducted by non-Native, New Age guru James Arthur Ray.

Medical staff are on hand at every VCR retreat.

Sometimes, he said, veterans come out of sweats wanting to build sweat lodges in their own backyards.

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Iraq War veteran Michael Carroll, putting the finishing touches on a sweat lodge frame built from willow saplings. Deer Park, Washington. VOA

“I tell them, ‘I can’t stop you if you want to go and build one. But it won’t be done in the right way,’” Falcon said. “And once I tell them that, they are very respectful and say, ‘I’ll build a sauna instead.’” VOA

Next Story

Meditation Helps Veterans Well With PTSD: Study

Meditation could be more acceptable to veterans who might associate mental health treatment with weakness.

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A U.S soldier patrols at night in Khost province, Afghanistan, seen through night vision equipment. About 400,000 veterans had a PTSD diagnosis in 2013, according to the Veterans Affairs health system. VOA

Meditation worked as well as traditional therapy for military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder in a small experiment sponsored by the Department of Defense.

One method preferred by the Department of Veterans Affairs is exposure therapy, but it doesn’t work for everyone and many can’t handle what it requires: purposely recalling traumatic events and confronting emotions.

Meditation could be a better choice for some, the researchers said.

Exposure therapy unpopular

The experiment tested meditation against exposure therapy, which involves working with a therapist and gradually letting go of fears triggered by painful memories.

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There’s growing interest in meditation in the United States.

Many vets won’t try exposure therapy or drop out because it’s too difficult, said Thomas Rutledge, the study’s senior author and a Veterans Affairs psychologist in San Diego.

Evidence for meditation “allows us to put more options on the table” with confidence they work, Rutledge said.

The study was published Thursday in the journal Lancet Psychiatry.

Follow-up study needed

About 400,000 veterans had a PTSD diagnosis in 2013, according to the VA health system. The VA already is using meditation, yoga and similar approaches to supplement traditional therapy with PTSD, said Paula Schnurr, executive director of the VA’s National Center for PTSD.

While the three-month study adds to evidence supporting these lifestyle practices, Schnurr said, more research is needed to learn how long meditation’s benefits last.

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Meditation can boost emotional intelligence, cut stress at workplace. Pixabay

“There’s no follow-up in this study,” Schnurr noted, and one therapist did 80 percent of the exposure therapy so the findings hinge largely on one therapist’s skills.

Researchers measured symptoms in about 200 San Diego area veterans randomly assigned to one of three groups. Some learned to meditate. Others got exposure therapy. The third group attended classes where they learned about nutrition and exercise.

All sessions were once a week for 90 minutes.

After three months, 61 percent of the meditation group improved on a standard PTSD assessment, compared to 42 percent of those who got exposure therapy and 32 percent of those who went to classes. When researchers accounted for other factors, meditation was better than the classes and equally effective as exposure therapy.

The researchers defined success as at least a 10-point improvement in scores on a standard symptoms test, given to participants by people who did not know which kind of treatment they’d received. The test measures symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares and insomnia.

 

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Cycling, walking in nature may improve your mental health. Pixabay

 

PTSD also can be treated with medications or other types of talk therapy. Many of the participants were taking prescribed medicine for PTSD.

Most of the vets were men with combat-related trauma, so it’s not clear whether meditation would be equally effective in women or with other types of trauma.

More interest, styles

There’s growing interest in meditation in the United States. A government survey last year found 14 percent of adults said they had recently meditated, up from 4 percent from a similar survey five years earlier.

There are many styles of meditation. The type taught to vets in the study was transcendental meditation, or TM, which involves thinking of a mantra or sound to settle the mind.

TM was developed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a guru to the Beatles in the late 1960s. Some of the study authors are affiliated with a university in Fairfield, Iowa, founded by Maharishi. Their role was to oversee the meditation training.

Also Read: 2 War-Stricken Towns in Somalia Finally Receive Health Care: UN

Rutledge, who was the principal researcher, said he does not practice meditation himself.

Meditation could be more acceptable to veterans who might associate mental health treatment with weakness, Rutledge said.

“It’s probably less threatening,” he said. “It may be easier to talk to veterans about participating in something like meditation.” (VOA)