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Trauma may open a door to spirituality

By Richard Scheinin/Knight Ridder Newspapers
Headline by Bill Radford

Psychologist Robert Grant is a student of war and its casualties. Two years ago, he visited Papua New Guinea and almost routinely met men and women bearing bullet wounds from years of civil conflict. Grant went to the bush and listened to survivors tell stories about "rebels coming in and burning a whole village down, loved ones being raped and shot in front of them."

Then he conveyed this message: Traumatic experience can break a person, destroying trust in God and the world. Or it can provide a spiritual opening - a crack that opens the way to a deeper sense of life's meaning.

"Trauma has a way of finding us, and it has a power that is like nothing else," said Grant of San Mateo, Calif. "All this pain. It's like a refiner's fire that purifies us, if the process can be monitored and people are given enough support."

Not long ago, most counselors regarded such talk as heretical. Many still do. But just as psychologists have grown sensitive in two decades to clients' ethnic and cultural backgrounds, they increasingly consider how spiritual factors shape the way clients view themselves.

Recent studies indicate one in three psychologists report strong interest in religion. While most do not use religious language and metaphor to the same extent as Grant, growing numbers of counselors are willing to guide trauma victims through the metaphysical minefields brought on by their experiences. Religious agencies and private clinicians report new collaborations between psychologists and clerics who treat victims of trauma - everything from child abuse to rape, torture or natural disaster - and agree that psychological health and spiritual well-being are related states of being.

All this occurs as American society is drawn more to spirituality and religion - trying to find meaning in a world filled with violence and obsessed with material wealth. Mental-health professionals talk about society's "vicarious traumatization" through media coverage of disturbing events: Rwanda, Littleton, Kosovo. It has been written that trauma is as ubiquitous as the weather on the evening news, and mental-health workers recognize the "compassion fatigue" that millions suffer - including themselves.

One result is that many of these professionals find themselves drawn to "one of the central topics of religion - how people deal with suffering," said Jack Saul, director of the International Trauma Studies Program at New York University.

Founder of a treatment center for refugees who were tortured in their countries of origin, Saul, a clinical psychologist, said, "Suffering is often traumatic suffering. Trauma leads many people to spiritual awakening, spiritual growth. That is definitely a strong, powerful discourse in the trauma field."

It seems to be a theme in every religion that the broken man or woman can be filled with the spirit. What's a little startling is to hear this language spoken by mental-health professionals, as occurred recently on a rainy Sunday morning when Grant addressed a roomful of therapists at the Mercy Center, a Catholic-run retreat house and educational institute in Burlingame, Calif.

Grant talked about the "dark grace" of traumatic experience. He related it to historical figures: St. Francis of Assisi was a man of privilege whose war experience turned him toward a life of poverty and service. Nelson Mandela's imprisonment became a forge for spiritual strength and political commitment.

"And Christ suffered right up to the very end," said Grant, who is convinced that great human resiliency can arise out of the most terrible circumstances.

These ideas have lingered on the outskirts of psychological practice for much of the century. Occasionally, they have left a wide mark, as when psychologist Viktor E. Frankl reflected on his Holocaust experience in "Man's Search for Meaning." In that book, which sold more than 10 million copies, Frankl proposed a mode of therapy - known as "logotherapy" - that bordered on secular theology. But logotherapy faded, and Frankl, who died in 1997, never expected the book to have lasting impact anyway. "I simply thought it might be helpful for people prone to despair," he once said of his work.

Now ideas like his are moving into the psychological mainstream. Grant has been flown around the world by the U.S. Navy to lecture military chaplains, psychiatrists and other mental-health professionals about the spiritual dimensions of traumatic experience. University programs devoted to trauma study and treatment are proliferating.

In May, Charles Figley, director of the Traumatology Institute at Florida State University, spent two days at a conference of 300 nurses and mental-health workers. Figley reminded them that the Chinese word for "crisis" consists of two characters: "One character stands for danger, the other for opportunity."

"It is an opportunity," said Figley, who in the 1970s helped pioneer treatment of Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. And the trauma survivors who cope best with their situations tend to be those "who believe in the power of God - who are able to let go of questioning reality."

Descriptions of trauma are as old as myth. Yet the psychiatric community has not always sympathized with the reactions of people paralyzed by terrifying events. Shell-shocked soldiers were treated with electric-shock therapies and described as "moral invalids" after World War I. For years, a "conspiracy of silence" surrounded the traumatic-stress disorders of Holocaust victims, says psychologist Yael Danieli, an expert in the field.

But the rage and panic of Vietnam veterans elicited public sympathy by the late '70s. The feminist movement brought the trauma of rape victims and battered wives to light. In 1980, post-traumatic stress disorder was included in the American Psychiatric Association's manual of mental disorders.

The profession has developed treatments for symptoms brought on by many traumatic events, including sexual assaults, industrial accidents and natural disasters. As a rule, the regimens include medication or therapeutic methods that lead patients through the retelling of traumatic events. The stories - a soldier's witnessing of terrible carnage; a tornado victim's loss of family and home - often are so upsetting to cherished belief systems about the way the world works that survivors are filled with what theologians call "ontological anxiety" over the very nature of being.

"The spiritual nature of the issue is inescapable," said Larry Decker, a clinical psychologist who treats Persian Gulf War and other veterans at the Santa Barbara Veterans Center. "I've been in the field 20 years, I see 26 men a week, and it comes up a lot. Some men I see for years, and the time arises when I ask, 'Have you ever thought about what happens when you die? Or what happened to the people you killed?'"

Treatment of trauma victims is still in an embryonic stage. No single therapeutic technique seems to work, so treatment is still very much a puzzle. The pieces fit together differently for every survivor, and the spiritual piece can be elusive.

"It's not my starting point," said Bruce H. Young, disaster services coordinator for the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Menlo Park, Calif. After the 1994 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, he was among scores of mental-health professionals who offered support to survivors and victims' families.

"Their pain is palpable," Young said. "There's no artifice. ... Listening and talking to them challenges me to be absolutely present and sincere. And that in itself is, I suppose, a spiritual practice."

Copyright 1998-1999, The Gazette

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