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Vets Find Mantram Repetition Helps PTSD Symptoms

Evening Edition

Only about half the veterans suffering from PTSD seek treatment, because of the stigma attached to asking for help. The VA Medical Center in San Diego is testing an ancient meditation technique called “Mantram Repetition” to see if more veterans around the country might be willing to try it.

Vietnam veteran Roger Lewis staffs the patient library at the VA Medical Center in La Jolla.

“This is like a barber’s shop,” he said, “where the guys come in and we talk.”

Aired 4/5/12 on KPBS News.

The VA Medical Center in San Diego is testing an ancient meditation technique called “Mantram Repetition” to see if veterans from around the country with PTSD are willing to try it.

Robert Lewis, Vietnam veteran,
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Above: Robert Lewis, Vietnam veteran,

Lewis is a bit of a mentor to the patients who come in looking for books to help them understand the health problems they’re facing. Sometimes he gives them a flyer that’s lying on his desk. It’s for a class he took four years ago called "Mantram Repetition.”

Lewis explained that it’s a technique to control the mind, and it helps him control his emotions and behavior.

“When I get really angry,” he said, “when I feel the need to do something stupid that could get me in trouble, then I use the mantram. I turn away and I use my mantram to get to a safe point to where I can function OK.”

What is a mantram? It’s a word or phrase that you choose – for example “Ave Maria,” “Shalom,” or “Hare Rama” - and in times of stress you repeat it over and over again silently to yourself. Lewis chose one that connects him to the Jewish community that raised him.

“I love mine,“ Lewis said, “because I think it’s really powerful and hypnotic - it calms me down. Sometimes it calms me down so much, like right now, I could easily shed a tear.”

Lewis gives a deep sigh and settles into his chair, visibly connecting to something inside as he brings his mantram to mind.

In a classroom next to the library, Jeffrey Snodgrass, a newer vet from the first Iraq war, is in his forth week of doing mantram repetition to help his PTSD symptoms.

A circle of about a dozen empty chairs fill up as the participants trickle in. Snodgrass took a few minutes before the class to talk about his experience.

“This is another tool in my arsenal to fight the demons in my head,“ he said. “It works very well for sleep. I have terrible nightmares, and I’m on medication to help that, but sometimes medication alone doesn’t help. So if I wake up in the middle of the night, just flooded with memories, it can help banish those memories long enough to get back to sleep.”

Snodgrass said he’s been struggling with his symptoms of PTSD for years, but until recently, the VA didn’t acknowledge how serious his symptoms were and only offered him drugs. Now he feels the VA is increasingly willing to confront the issue and try different ways to deal with it.

Victor Ozuna agreed that the VA’s approach to treating PTSD is changing. He is also an Iraq war veteran, but a more recent one. He got back in 2004. His symptoms of stress are different.

“Sleeping was easy,” he said, “Being awake was hard.“

Ozuna described how he felt, and still feels much of the time.

“It’s like you were here but your mind was somewhere else,” he said, “It’s like the same feeling of anger you carry with you during battle was with you all the time, except that it was internalized. I could be really calm right here, but inside of me it was not calm at all. The mantram kind of controls it, brings me back to where I‘m at right now. It helps me control my mind.”

Ozuna says Mantram Repetition is a powerful tool, but for him the most important thing is that the VA is taking a step in the right direction. However, most of the people in his Mantram class are older veterans, not one of the thousands returning from Iraq or Afghanistan.

“Now,” he said, “they just have to reach the right audience.”

That’s what Jill Bormann of the VA Medical Center is trying to do. Bormann is with the Department of Nursing and Patient Care at the VA Medical Center and she obtained funding for research into the effectiveness of Mantram Repetition. Her clinical trials found that veterans who used Mantram Repetition along with the traditional therapy of drugs and counseling were twice as likely to report relief from their symptoms as those who used the traditional therapies alone.

Now the VA has granted a million dollars to explore using the technique in other centers around the country.

“Certainly in the scientific community, some would say the word’s not out yet,” Bormann said. “ That’s why we’re doing this research, because you need to do more rigorous studies on different populations.”

Jill Bormann, Research Nurse Scientist, VA Medical Center
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Above: Jill Bormann, Research Nurse Scientist, VA Medical Center

“On the other hand,” she said, “I think the VA is really opening its doors to complimentary therapy, patient-centered care, looking for integrative therapies where you can combine the complementary types of things with traditional medicine. It’s becoming easier."

Bormann has been awarded a million dollar grant to see if veterans around the country are open to the nontraditional approach.

One early adopter of the technique is Phil Landis. Landis was a platoon leader in Vietnam in 1968. Now he’s the President and CEO of Veterans’ Village, one of the nation’s most respected centers for homeless vets. He took the class in Mantram Repetition seven years ago, and he says he was initially skeptical. But not after he’d practiced it for a while. Now he says he‘s still reaping the benefits.

Phil Landis, CEO, Veterans Village
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Above: Phil Landis, CEO, Veterans Village

“You don’t know I’m doing it,” Landis said, with a broad smile, “that’s the beautiful thing about it. But it’s just automatic now. I chose the same word that Gandhi utilized because I figured he probably knew what he was talking about.”

Landis said he had already spent years working through the trauma he experienced in Vietnam before he came to Mantram Repetition.

“Maybe if it had been introduced to me early on and I had practiced it, I could’ve short stopped a lot of my own journey,” he said. “Maybe it could have been a tool that I could have utilized so that I didn’t have to spend so much time dealing with my own issues.”

Video by Nicholas McVicker

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