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Vietnam Vets Testing New Therapy to Treat PTSD

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The Veterans’ Administration Hospital in San Diego is gearing up to care for  a new generation of Vets, as Marines and sailors are discharged from the Iraq war. Experience from past wars tells doctors the wounds will be both physical and mental. KPBS reporter Alison St John reports on a research project using Vietnam Vets to test new and unconventional ways of helping treat post traumatic stress.

About a dozen men, most in their 50s or 60s, sit awkwardly in a circle of chairs, as Sheryll Becker, a psychiatric nurse, opens a group session of what she calls “mantram therapy.”   

Becker: I want to know how is it going with your mantram? Are you remembering to practice? Are you remembering to write your mantram several nights a week?

Becker has given the men, all veterans, a list of words or phrases designed to shift the mind away from negative or painful thoughts and feelings, and focus on the present moment. The words are mantras that she teaches the men to recite inwardly.

Becker: We’ll sit together for five minutes and silently repeat out mantrams. Anybody willing to share with the group what your mantram is?  (Ave Maria … Ave Maria) Great!  from the Catholic tradition,  that’s a beautiful one.

Yaekle: Mine’s Ohm Shanti Rama I like it, it just flows for me.

After the class is over, Fred Yaekle explains he didn’t choose Om Shanti Rama because he follows eastern spiritual teachings.

Yaekle: I really don’t know what it meant, but it’s really just a rhythm type thing that calms you down, I will say it over and over and it helps me deal with all that anxiety I used to have going on inside me.

Yaekle still suffers from hard-to-control anger, a residue from the post combat stress that plagued him for years after his two tours in Vietnam.

Yaekle: I would have nightmares, I would wake up in cold sweats, somebody would slam a door and I would think they were incoming mortar rounds. I would get frightened and I couldn’t move. It created, it created  a lot of depression in my life.

Yaekle has fought his way out of the alcohol and drug addictions he used to mask his problems. He says wishes he’d had help like this when he first got back from Vietnam.

Dr Jill Bormann, who heads the mantram therapy research project, says she only recently discovered the technique might work for people suffering from PTSD.  But she says she’s used it effectively for years with other patients.

Bormann: We were teaching mantram for all sort of things, for pain relief and managing anxiety - and one guy raised his hand and said you know I use this mantram before I sleep and I’m not having this PTSD dreams any more -  it was helping him with his nightmares.

Bormann says much of the treatment prescribed for people suffering from anxiety disorders involves prescription drugs, which has its own problems. In comparison, she says, mantram therapy has a lot of advantages

Bormann:  I call it a sort of Jacuzzi for the mind , it’s something you can use to focus  and calm yourself at a moments notice, and it doesn’t require money, it’s non toxic, it’s inexpensive,  a person just needs to practice it and make it a part of their lives.

Mantram therapy, which is a kind of meditation, is part of the trend to incorporate therapies based on eastern practices into western medicine.  As evidence mounts that they are effective, practices that were once considered fringy are now included in many people’s insurance policies.

Bormann struggled to get funding from the Veterans Administration in Washington DC to prove mantram therapy works.  She was not successful until U.S. troops went to war in Iraq.

Bormann: When the war broke out, the VA wanted to fund research in this area so we were sort of in the right place at the right time to get the funding.

Last year, the VA gave the San Diego Hospital half a million dollars for a four year study of the effectiveness of mantram therapy in the treatment of PTSD.

More than 300 Vets have come to the VA Hospital in the last three months, asking for help with mental stress symptoms. That’s almost four times as many as a couple of years ago, and the number will only increase as the Iraq war drags on.

Bormann hopes the research into mantram therapy will offer a tool to prevent a generation of new veterans from developing the chronic symptoms suffered by their predecessors.

Becker: When the mind gets really riled we can use our mantram in the presort moment and develop this relations ship between mantram and stillness.

Alison St John KPBS news.

Becker: If you your find your mind wanting to go back, try using your mantram instead, just try it on for size and we’ll see what you say next week.

 

 

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