Georgetown psychiatrist: Move beyond focus on mind in treating mental health issues 

Peter Slavin

Dr. James S. Gordon proposed changing the military’s approach to medicine at the 2013 Annual Meeting and Exposition of the Association of the United States Army.

Speaking Oct. 22, Gordon, the founder and director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, urged bringing self-awareness, self-care and mutual support “into the center of all care,”” including the problems of traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety.

He called for medicine that works with the body as well as the mind. “One of problems with mental health,” he said, “is it’s too focused just on mind.”

He pointed to research showing there are two effective treatments for depression – one, talking with a sympathetic, compassionate and experienced listener and two, physical exercise, which, he said, changes brain physiology, chemistry and even anatomy.

Gordon, a clinical professor of psychiatry and family medicine at Georgetown Medical School and chair of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy, added that there is research showing an 80 to 90 percent decrease in post-traumatic stress disorder using self-care and mutual help among people exposed to mind-body groups in Gaza and Kosovo. His center has also worked in Macedonia, Israel, Haiti and southern Louisiana.

Discussing self-care, Gordon said the biggest problem people have when traumatized, depressed or suffering chronic physical ills is feeling helpless and hopeless. Actually, he added, even the most traumatized person can be shown how he or she can help himself. He cited the simple acts of deep breathing or moving about.

“That becomes the beginning of that journey out of ill health,” he said.

He expressed concern about conventional medicine’s focus on diagnosis, because it tends to make people feel a bit like outcasts and to isolate them. “It’s far more important,” he said, “to make all these services – self-care, wellness, and mutual support” available to everyone.” Everyone exposed to combat, he said, needs these skills.

He acknowledged that at times people need individual therapy and very occasionally, medication. But, he maintained, “the skills of self-care should be fundamental and the first line for everyone.” “

“Services have to be available to everyone,” he maintained. “Why not like basic training? You learn how to deal with your weapon. Why not learn how to deal with your body, your mind?””

“A group is the best way to work,” he said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve had military men and women say to me, ‘I went into that shrink’s office and I felt like a bug under a microscope.’” By contrast, he said,  “You create a group where people can come together as peers, as equals and share when they’re ready and what they’re ready to share, everything changes.””

He added, “if people are in a program where they’re respected, where they’re taught skills of self-care, then if they need something more, they’re much more amenable to receiving it.””

Gordon said his center has already trained 350 clinicians, who work with US military and veterans and their families, in its mind-body approach.