The Missing Piece for Healing Community-Wide Trauma

This guest blog post is by James Gordon, founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine and TEDMED 2016 Speaker. You can watch his TEDMED talk here.

Not long ago, a revered Lakota elder told me that our work at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s (CMBM) was “the missing piece” for his people and indigenous people everywhere. He and other elders have said that we’re giving them the practical, scientific tools to help a severely traumatized people restore balance to their minds and bodies. As they work with us they’re realizing their capacity to live in the light of traditional wisdom as they meet the challenges of the modern world.

Working with Pine Ridge.
Working with Pine Ridge.

Their experience reflects the impact our work has had over the last 25 years. We‘ve seen it in some of the world’s most troubled places – in Bosnia, Kosovo, Gaza, Israel and Haiti, with Syrian refugees in Jordan as well as here at home: among our veterans and first responders; with the homeless as well as the privileged; for the desperately ill as well as the highly functional but highly stressed.

Everywhere we’ve worked the model of self-care and group support has been embraced. The tools we teach – meditation, guided imagery, biofeedback, yoga, self-expression in words, drawings, and movement, and genograms (family trees) – had been easy to learn and use to reduce stress, improve mood, and enhance hope. Our small group model has been welcomed and recognized as a powerful and nurturing context for healing.

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota has been one proving ground for our approach, for the way we work collaboratively to bring healing and hope to a long traumatized community.

Working with Pine Ridge.
Working with Pine Ridge.

Located in one of the most impoverished counties in the United States, the proud and determined Pine Ridge community suffers from economic devastation, violence, self-destructive behavior, and demoralization. Pine Ridge has 8 times the national rate of Type 2 diabetes. 80% of the population is affected by alcoholism and 85% are unemployed. In the year before we began our intensive training program, 20 young people committed suicide and 200 more attempted to do so.

In 2015, after the 20 young people had killed themselves, Basil Braveheart, a Lakota elder and other community leaders, told us of the urgent need to develop a reservation-wide program for healing the community’s trauma. With generous support from the Swift Family Foundation, Battery Powered, Open Road and Administration for Native Americans, and US Department of Human Services, we were able to bring our comprehensive program of self-care and group support to 70 elders, clinicians, teachers, and youth activists. The training featured the seamless integration of CMBM’s evidence-based model and traditional Lakota ceremony led by participating tribal elders.

We were able to touch hearts change the lives of these community leaders. “Amazing” said Cindy Catches, an elder, “The trust, the love, the tools that were given… I saw the beginning of a real healing.” “Life-changing” said Lisa White Bull, a counselor at the Little Wound School, “I believe our prayers for help have been answered”.

We gave these 70 leaders tools they were then able to share with troubled young people and their families. In the 15 months since that training there have been no youth suicides.

Mind-Body Skills Groups at Standing Rock.
Mind-Body Skills Groups at Standing Rock.

The success of the program inspired the US Department of Health and Human Services to award a grant to the Little Wound School to bring the CMBM model to every child in all 7 of the reservation’s tribal schools, and to all the children’s families and all their teachers.

Committed to bringing this missing piece to the Standing Rock Reservation and other indigenous communities, to Syrian refugees throughout the Middle East, and to communities in the US which are severely challenged economically, and divided by racial mistrust, I believe that our model of providing community-wide trauma relief is needed more than ever. We invite you to become a part of our work and to support it – to join our healing community.

James S. Gordon MD, a psychiatrist, is the Founder and Executive Director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School, and author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression. He will also be leading trauma workshops in February and July at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health.

The Center for Mind-Body Medicine is expanding their professional trainings to meet the needs of all those who want to serve their communities. You can find out more about their upcoming US trainings on our website. On the website you’ll also find articles and videos that feature their work with population-wide trauma – from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and CBS 60 Minutes – as well as other information about their global trauma-relief programs.