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Having spent 15 years working in the mental health-care field, I got a birds-eye view into some of the cost challenges within the nation’s health-care system. Recently, a health-care professional I know told me about the emergency room where people come for all kinds of ailments including suicide attempts, homicidal thoughts and behavior that scares them and their families. Therapists tell me of patients who can’t afford psychotherapy, let alone the high cost of antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication or some of the newer antipsychotics. There is not enough money to give people the intensive help they need. There must be alternatives.

In places like Sudan, in the heart of Africa, the local doctor does not have the option of prescribing psychiatric drugs to patients, as the cost would be prohibitive. Most people there have some type of post-traumatic stress disorder after having seen villages burned and relatives and friends killed right in front of them. Years of hunger, war and families being torn apart by forced slavery have taken their toll. Women find it difficult to sleep in their huts – if they can sleep at all. Many women and men are disturbed throughout the day by flashbacks of the murder and mayhem they’ve witnessed.

For the good people of Sudan, there are only a few cures for their symptoms: prayer, religion and connections to supportive groups in their villages and learning some of the techniques that might have a direct impact on their symptoms. One NGO, Christian Solidarity International, has supported a group of women who have learned a basic breathing technique called coherent breathing. They have been performing this technique daily for five months and are reporting great progress in terms of their ability to cope with their lives. No meds, no shrinks, just the breathing and the support of the other women who come to the group.

There are other techniques, as well as people who are working to make symptom relief available at low or no cost. Dr. James Gordon has worked for years at his Center for Mind Body Medicine. He recently worked in Haiti, teaching techniques to help people deal with the stresses of trauma and loss following the earthquake. His training involves providing low-cost help to those who could never access health care.

In Northern India, the Tibetan government in exile has been taking care of monks and nuns who have been brutally tortured by the Chinese before they managed to escape to safety in India. The horrors inflicted by the Chinese are too horrible to write about, and there is no ability to provide the years of psychotherapy that might be necessary. The only hope for these people was to create a program of relaxation and meditation that could be taught in a group setting. Fortunately, a program was designed and has worked effectively.

In fact, the Tibetan program was so impressive to researchers that a group from Columbus, Ohio, decided to try it out with women who had experienced domestic violence and other similar traumas. Drs. Mo Yee Lee, Amy Zaharlick and Deborah Akers worked with the assistant director of the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, Geshe Kalsang Damdul, and devised a program of short lectures and twice daily meditation. The results? Significant reduction in overall PTSD symptoms, increase in positive emotions and reduction in fear, shame and sadness. Many of the women continued to experience an overall benefit 365 days after the program ended and also experienced improved overall functioning.

The benefits of a program like the Columbus program are obvious. It is low cost and non-personnel intensive. People don’t have to feel that they are relying on a physician or therapist. There is an element of self-help and reliance on others in the community who have similar issues and problems. Best of all, it works!

To reduce the overall cost of health care, we will need to find safe and low-cost alternatives. Stopping smoking, reducing obesity and increasing exercise are obvious ways to decrease costs, but group solutions such as the meditation technique sessions must also be utilized. They can provide much needed help to millions of Americans while simultaneously lowering the total bill. That’s enough to make us all smile.

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