By Paula Caplan
Emotional Healing Without Pathologizing or Drugging: from When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home. How all of us can help veterans
Thirty caring, hardworking people from all across the United States gathered at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) on November 2 for an invitation-only conference about ways to help war veterans and their loved ones heal from war’s emotional carnage. One unique feature of the conference was that in every one of the thirty programs, veterans are neither treated across the board as mentally ill nor subjected to the high-risk approach of psychiatric drug use (which these days is so often multiple psychiatric drug use).
Much of what helps war veterans heal also helps others struggling with emotional pain.
The atmosphere in the room of the conference, hosted by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance in HKS, was one of profound caring and respect for those who suffer. The variety of approaches would have been astonishing to those who believe that help for suffering comes only in two varieties: Drugs and psychotherapy.
Given the huge and rising numbers of war veterans who are isolated, homeless, experiencing family breakdown, abusing alcohol or drugs, or committing suicide, it is clear that the vast numbers of therapists in the military and the VA systems, combined with the vast numbers of prescriptions for psychotropic drugs handed out in those systems and in the private sector, are at the very least woefully insufficient.
In a subsequent essay some weeks from now, I will describe the approaches in detail and name the names of the programs. But for today, Veterans Day, what is important to know is that at the conference, speakers described their work, which ranged from the use of the arts to help with healing to the training of service dogs to help bring vets gently out of terrifying flashbacks to various community initiatives to Native American re-entry rituals to training vets to work for nonprofits and many, many more.
A major theme that ran throughout was the irreplaceably important act of listening to veterans’ stories of war and attempts to come truly home. The Welcome Johnny and Jane Home Project is a project aimed to have every civilian listen to a veteran’s story. This can be done and is being done throughout the country by ordinary citizens who are not therapists. As I have said when people express doubts about whether a non-therapist can help by listening, we used to call it friendship. We used to call it human connection. And one of the few well-established findings in the field of behavioral research is that almost every kind of emotional pain is intensified by isolation.
A study that Heather Milkiewicz and I did at Harvard Kennedy School recently consisted of having civilians listen to veterans who came from every war since World War II, then asking the veterans and the listeners how the session had been for them. The veterans said that it was helpful to them, because they felt safe and had been able to talk about things they had not previously told anyone. (See the second ten-minute video on this page at whenjohnnyandjanecomemarching.weebly.com for a description of how to do the interviews, and it is also briefly described in Chapter 6 of When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans). The civilian listeners were struck by how much they and the veterans had in common, making it clear that most civilians’ avoidance of listening to veterans is based partly on the notion that vets and civilians have little or nothing in common. But what they discovered was their common humanity. And the listening sessions reduce the veterans’ soul-destroying isolation.
Last week, I heard Lisa Ling say on “The Today Show” that she was doing an episode of her how on Oprah’s Network that was about how little the traditional approaches of therapy and drugs are helping veterans. She went on to say that she had been floored to attend a retreat at which yoga was used to help vets, and she bemoaned the fact that there is so little in the way of alternative approaches for veterans. Nothing could be further from the truth, as we saw at the conference, and the importance of everyone learning about what is available is the reason that we are in the process of preparing, with Emmy-winning director Mark Harris, a film about the thirty approaches that were presented there.
For today, Veterans Day, I hope that everyone reading this essay will make a commitment to listening to one veteran’s story, if not today, then soon. You will learn invaluable lessons about life, about death, about humankind, and therefore about yourself, and you will bring those lessons into everything you do. Eric Newhouse wrote today about my proposal for a National Day of Listening to Veterans, and he begins my telling the story of one particular veteran at here. And a young student in California regularly listens to the stories of vets. Let us all follow this same path.
©2011 by Paula J. Caplan All Rights Reserved
Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D, is a clinical and research psychologist, author of books and plays, playwright, actor, and director. She was born and raised in Springfield, Missouri, received her A.B. with honors from Radcliffe College of Harvard University, and received her M.A. and Ph.D. in psychology from Duke University. She is currently an Associate at Harvard University’s DuBois Institute, working on their Voices of Diversity project, and a Fellow at the Women and Public Policy Program of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. She has given more than 400 invited addresses and invited workshops and has done more than 1,000 media interviews as part of her work in public education and activism.
She is former Full Professor of Applied Psychology and Head of the Centre for Women’s Studies in Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and former Lecturer in Women’s Studies and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto.
Books by Paula Caplan:
Permission to publish from Paula Caplan. First posted at her Psychology Today blog, Science Isn’t Golden