You’ve taught for many years at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. As part of your work there you founded the first medical school program in complementary and integrative medicine, including education in meditation, exercise, and whole foods nutrition. To what extent has this approach spread further through the medical profession in recent years?
That’s a great question. At The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, we trained about 20 Georgetown faculty in our integrative approach, which includes the techniques that I describe in Unstuck. Quiet meditation, shaking and dancing, guided imagery to understand yourself, biofeedback, written exercises to explore your unconscious wisdom, drawings. All of these approaches we taught to 20 Georgetown faculty, and now these full-time faculty at Georgetown are leading groups each year for medical students and also for other faculty and for the staff, the people who work at the medical center.
This model of mind-body medicine that we developed at The Center for Mind-Body Medicine is now being used in at least a dozen, maybe 15 or more, medical schools in the United States. We’ve trained faculty at different schools — a dozen or so at the University of Michigan, and the University of Washington in Seattle and others at various schools around the country. The people we’ve trained are using the same model that I teach in Unstuck at their institutions, and they’re starting to publish research on the effectiveness of this model in reducing stress, improving mood, and enhancing students’ hopefulness about becoming a doctor. One of the effects that I really love is that these groups enhance the compassion of medical students for each other.
I was a co-author on one paper about our work at Georgetown and there’s another from the University of Washington that’s come out. I keep hearing interest in this approach from other medical schools and other institutions that want to bring this work in. The interest is there, especially among the students. Every year anywhere from 50 to 70 Georgetown students take this as an elective, two hours a week for 11 weeks. They’re not required to have an elective; they do it on their own time, because they want to do it. We’re finding the same thing at other medical schools.
In North America, at this point 1500 or 1600 people have at least come through the first phase of our professional training program in mind-body medicine. Many, many of them are using this approach in hospitals, clinics and private practices. They’re using it as part of their teaching at universities and graduate schools. So I see it happening, and there’s still a challenge, too, because I think one of the major shifts that has to happen in medicine is a more even balance between treatment and teaching, between what we as professionals do to or for our patients, and what we can help our patients to do for themselves. And so my work — whether in writing a guide about how to move through the journey out of depression, or in my work in training health professionals — is ultimately to put the tools of self-awareness and self-care in the hands of all those people who want to use them. That’s the shift that has to happen in medicine.
And though this change is coming in various places — through the work that I’m doing and that people like Jon Kabat-Zinn [at the University of Massachusetts] and Herbert Benson [at Harvard] and others are doing — it still has a ways to go before it’s regarded as a kind of an equal partner in the health care that all of us need.
At the time of the Kosovo war in the 1990s, you went there to help. Did you go on your own or with institutional backing? And what did you find there and do there?
My colleague Susan Lord and I went on our own. We went to Kosovo because we had started working in Bosnia after the war. We saw that people were certainly interested in mind-body medicine, and in this kind of group model that we were developing. This was about 1996-97. But then, in 1998, we saw the war starting in Kosovo, where the Serbian army, police and paramilitaries were fighting against the Albanian rebels. The Albanians made up 90 to 95 percent of the population and they were under the thumb of the Serbian government. They wanted freedom. They didn’t want to be treated as second-class citizens. So we saw the war starting up and we wanted to be there because we wanted to do whatever we could, first of all, to be on the side of peaceful reconciliation in which the Albanians had their own territory. But secondly, we wanted to be there at the beginning to help people who were being traumatized by the war and to help train the local health, mental health and educational professionals who were working with them.
What we had seen in Bosnia is that if you wait until after the war is over, patterns of dysfunction become fixed in peoples’ bodies and minds. Their blood pressure goes up, pain syndromes are profound, large numbers of people become depressed, there is a lot of abuse of alcohol and a lot of abuse of women and children. We felt that if we could begin to help people in Kosovo deal with this stress now, during the war, rather than waiting until after the war, maybe we could make a long-term difference in the health of this population.
So we went and we spent time up in the hills with families that had been burned out or bombed out of their homes by the Serbian army and we began to teach them some of these techniques. We taught our approach to members of the Mother Theresa Society who were providing the primary health care in the countryside and we also taught them to the peacekeepers who were there from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. What we saw is that these techniques worked in these situations. People welcomed them. They might have seemed strange — nobody there in Kosovo had ever heard of Soft Belly or guided imagery or meditation, and not too many in the military had heard about these techniques either. But all of these people were willing to do the little experiments with us for a few minutes — do the Soft Belly or do some drawings, and see what came out, see how their thoughts and feelings and their problems came out on the page. And then do another drawing to see how they might find a solution to these problems that had seemed so difficult.
What happened ultimately, and it’s a longish story, is that when the NATO bombing started in 1999, we began to work in the refugee camps in Macedonia where the Kosovars had fled from the war. We began training significant numbers of health professionals. We then came back into Kosovo as soon as the NATO troops entered Kosovo in 1999 and ultimately we trained 600 people in Kosovo and developed a local faculty which continues even now to provide ongoing consultation and supervision. Our model, the same model that I use in Unstuck, is now available throughout the community mental health system in Kosovo. It’s available to two million people, and we have research on the effectiveness of our model in working with children with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Is there anything further you’d like to tell our readers?
One thing I want to add about all the techniques we use, about everything I teach in Unstuck, is that anybody can do them. This is the most important thing. Whether it’s drawings to get people in touch with what’s happening with them and to engage their capacity to use their imagination to solve the problems that they have; the expressive meditations, the quiet meditations; the written exercises that we use to help people develop their unconscious wisdom and their deep knowing about what to do about what’s most troubling to them; or the guided imagery that we use to help people get in touch with their inner knowing, their intuition. Anyone can learn and use them.
I have worked with depressed people from the age of six or seven on up to their 80s, with every conceivable kind of educational level, every kind of background and race. Everyone who is interested can use these techniques and use them in a way that they very quickly discover is helpful to them. This is important—you don’t have to have any particular background or experience to help yourself with the Unstuck approach. I’ve worked with meditation with six and seven year old kids, and gotten them to do the drawings and use guided imagery to access their inner guide—maybe a big animal that they bring with them into the situations that are most upsetting and most depressing to them — being alone or scared of challenges at school.
And this is not just for people who are depressed. These are methods that anyone can use to add fullness to their lives.
I’m glad you said that, because the book’s subtitle is “Your Guide to the Seven Stage Journey Out of Depression.” But the book is written for everyone who is troubled or confused or just going through a difficult time. And the same principles and the same techniques can apply and can be used by any of us at any point in our lives. I wrote it with a focus on people who are depressed, because I have been so troubled over the years by the way that they are treated, by the chronicity of so many people’s depression, by the easy recourse to medication, by the sense of hopelessness and helplessness so many people feel. So I wanted to say to people who are depressed that there is a way. It requires some effort and some commitment, but it’s interesting and it’s sometimes fun. And it can change your life. I wanted to say this to that group of people, whom I’ve been working with for 40 years now and who I feel such a commitment to. But I also wanted to make sure that everyone has access to this information and this perspective, because all of our lives are journeys. All of us will go through challenges. And the same principles apply and everyone can use the same practices.
What projects are you working on now?
We have two major new projects. One is working in New Orleans. We have a group of 80 people that we’ve been training and working with, mainly health and mental health professionals. We’re helping them to use this Unstuck approach with a population that’s been traumatized by Hurricane Katrina and helping them to develop a supportive network for themselves as they take this work out into their hospitals and clinics and practices.
The other project — this one is at an earlier stage but I hope it will be very significant — is working with professionals (and perhaps eventually peer counselors) who are working with members of the military coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. We have a small number of people who’ve come through our training who are doing this work at a few military hospitals and VAs [Veterans Administration facilities]. We’re hoping to significantly enlarge that. Our next training in mind-body medicine will be October 25-30, 2008 in Minneapolis. We’re hoping to have 50 to 70 military physicians, psychologists, social workers and nurses or other professionals who are working with returning vets in the VA system and community clinics. And this is just the beginning. And of course, as always, we welcome other professionals and educators to the training.
What the military is finding out, what they’re admitting in their own studies, is that they really don’t have good answers to the traumatic stress that the vets are bringing back from Iraq and Afghanistan. I think that we have an answer that will not only be useful and successful, but acceptable to the military. Because, just as in Unstuck, it’s saying to people, “You can do it.” Military people are very much can-do people. They like practical solutions and we have them. And we have a kind of small group support that people who have been in the military, or firefighters or police, appreciate because this is the way they work. And this group support is also, I believe, so important to all of us as we learn to help and heal ourselves.
Daniel Redwood, DC, is a Professor at Cleveland Chiropractic College – Kansas City. He is the editor-in-chief of Health Insights Today (www.healthinsightstoday.com) and serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of the American Chiropractic Association, Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, and Topics in Integrative Healthcare. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.