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The Body

After the War: Healing Native American Veterans

Many hospitals and treatment centers have begun offering holistic therapies for Native American veterans, many of whom are looking for a more spiritual approach to healing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is a disorder in which the “fight or flight” response has been severely damaged from a traumatic experience. The sufferer continues to experience fear and stress even after the threat is gone. Many PTSD patients experience flashbacks to the original incident or suffer from terrifying thoughts and dreams. Current therapies for PTSD often include psychotherapy and medication.

Native Americans have the highest rate of military service out of all U.S. racial groups. In fact, in 2012, the Department of Veterans reported that the percentage of Native veterans (under age 65) was greater than all other groups combined.

In a new study, researchers from Washington State University have been gathering data to gain a better understanding of Native veterans’ attitudes and beliefs toward PTSD and the current treatment options. The researchers have been interviewing Native veterans from all walks of life—those who are living on reservations as well as those in the city.

Native American spirituality is intertwined: spirit, mind, and body are all one, says lead researcher Greg Urquhart. Spirituality is a vital component of healing for Native American veterans, and this is usually not an option in western medicine, he adds.

According to the survey results, sixty percent of Native veterans who have tried standard PTSD therapy reported “no improvement” or were “very unsatisfied” with standard therapies. Seventy-two percent of the respondents, however, reported that spiritual or religious treatments were “successful” or “highly successful.” Animal therapy was also very popular.

According to the researchers, some of the alternative therapies offered at veterans hospitals include talking circles, vision quests, songs, drumming, stories, sweat lodge ceremonies, equine therapy, and gourd dances.

Sweat lodge ceremonies, in particular, seem especially helpful for both Native and non-Native veterans as well. These huts, often dome-shaped and made of natural materials, are used as gathering places for veterans to enter and ‘cleanse’ themselves from war. Stones are typically heated and then doused with water to create steam. A Native spiritual leader conducts a ceremony that may include prayers, songs, and rituals.

As more medical centers move toward holistic programs for PTSD, veterans of all races and beliefs will have the chance to heal spirit, mind, and body at once. The findings of the study will be presented at the next American Psychological Association conference.