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Healing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder With Native Medicine

Alfred Gibson (Navajo), spiritual leader and medicine man, helps Native veterans heal from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) through the “enemy way” ceremony with the support of the Veterans Administration. While these therapies have been used by Native people for generations, over the past few years, the Veterans Administration has witnessed the power and value of the culutrally sensitive process.

Gibson told the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “When soldiers go overseas, we give them warrior ceremonies to armor and protect them against the battle; when the soldier comes back, we have to remove that armor, to help him reconnect with his home.”

In addition to his role as medicine man, Gibson is also a traditional practitioner at a treatment facility in Gallup , New Mexico, working to help patients battle such maladies as addiction, mental stress and PTSD. In his treatment, he pairs traditional sweat lodge and ceremony with therapy and western medicines.

Jimi Kelley's Quapaw/Cherokee) father was in the military; his mother was a psychiatric nurse practitioner for the Veterans Administration. In his late teens, Jimi was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and PTSD. He found the western medical model did not meet his treatment needs, while Native medicine and therapies did. Jimi has found a way to combine western clinical therapy and traditional healing for his personal happiness and balance, and he is sharing it with others through the First Nation’s Behavioral Health Association.

Currently, Veterans Affairs hospitals throughout the nation run special programs for Native American vets that include talking circles, sweat lodge ceremonies and gourd dances. Dr. James Gillies, a psychologist in the PTSD clinic at the VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, told the Christian Science Monitor: "To be a soul doctor is to embrace the souls of the people you work with."

“But the goal, is always to do away with the medication—to help patients learn the traditional ways of healing,” Gibson said.

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According to Jimi Kelley, (Quapaw/Cherokee) family support specialist trainer and spokesperson on behalf of the Society of Truth, an initiative of the First Nations Behavioral Health Association, many programs report higher success rates when behavioral health programs are integrated with cultural and traditional practices.

“In terms of community needs such as cultural or spiritual integration, we need to have the room to be able to implement these things for healing to be effective in our community,” Kelley said. “I have two examples in an urban and reservation environment. The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe is a perfect example as they have a spiritual counselor on staff who functions in both a counseling role on the clock, but can do ceremonies off the clock. At the Los Angeles County Urban Indian Health Center, they include traditional crafts, drumming etc as part of the peer mental health program,” he said.

"The 'enemy way' ceremony rejuvenates them," Gibson told the Christian Science Monitor. "The songs, prayers, drumming, and herbs we use cleanse the body from the effects of war."

Gibson said ceremony can provide a long-term release from the psychological imprint of combat, though a series of ceremonies are often required, each addressing a different aspect of the patient's illness. “And it depends on the individual; it’s just like a person who's addicted to alcohol,” Gibson explained. “If he wants to get help, he will get better. But if he's two ways about it, it won't help him.”

Gregory Gomez (Apache) is a marine corps Vietnam vet that participates in in a talking group on the Acoma Pueblo Reservation. The group, with its cultural considerations, helps Gomez feel “a little more rested, stronger to deal with outside society.”

"We're dealing with our spiritual needs," Gomez told the Christian Science Monitor. "In other groups, there's a void."

One component of healing that has contributed to the well-being of Native veterans is the sweat lodge built behind the sandy plot of the PTSD clinic in Albuquerque.

According to patient Ambrose Willie, a U.S. Army Vietnam veteran, "It's a place for cleansing our soul, the sweat lodge teaches us to live in harmony with our surroundings," he told the Christian Science Monitor. "When we leave the doorway," Willie says, "our mind, body, and spirit are one."