Jordana Grader
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Dana Kittrelle
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    Pema Sheth is a shamanic practitioner who offers healing circles in Oakland to heal ailments such as PTSD, addiction, and depression. For 20 years, she has used indigenous methods, counseling, and herbal remedies to help her clients and community, including offering healing circles for veterans, people of color, and victims of sexual assault. One of Pema’s clients is a veteran who served in Afghanistan. When he met Pema, he had not cried in 15 years and struggled to keep a job. After just a couple weeks working with Pema, his PTSD symptoms dramatically decreased and he was able to feel his body again, restore meaningful friendships, and start school again for a new career path. Pema’s work has saved lives, restored family relationships, and been a cornerstone for her community for decades. However after the impacts of COVID-19, Pema shares,

    “I am using my savings up at this time as my monthly income has mostly dried up due to shelter-in-place restrictions. I am not sure how I will pay rent next month. Most importantly, I just want to help my community through these challenging times.”

    Pema is currently being forced to consider moving from her long-time community or changing to a different line of work to make ends meet. Her story is just one example of the challenges that many complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practitioners are facing. While our population deals with a worsening mental health crisis, CAM healers like Pema are uniquely suited to help us work through our collective trauma. However, these healers are being hit particularly hard by the impacts of COVID-19 because their work requires touch or physical proximity and many are not eligible for government assistance or loans.

    It is more crucial than ever to support these healers to ensure that their depth of experience is available to help heal the collective trauma of our times. In this way, we can create local cultures in a post-pandemic world that are resilient, connected, and inclusive.

    Healing Despair

    A recent study by Well Being Trust (WBT) and the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care expects as many as 75,000 more “deaths of despair” caused by drugs, alcohol abuse, and suicide, in addition to lives lost directly to COVID-19 virus. These deaths are exacerbated by unprecedented unemployment, prolonged fear, and months of social isolation. The WBT study remarks, “A preventable surge of avoidable deaths…is ahead of us if the country does not begin to invest in solutions that can help heal the nation’s isolation, pain, and suffering.”

    We have incurred collective trauma, a shared experience of helplessness, disorientation, and loss. Beliefs (“I am not safe”) or behavioral patterns (prolonged fear and anticipation) arising from the trauma can be passed within the community and even to the next generation through unconscious cues, emotional messages, or recounting memories of the tragic event. Addressing this collective wounding is paramount, and it is not enough to rely on the overtaxed allopathic healthcare system to help us heal our wounds and find inner resilience in these times.

    More than 38% of American adults choose complementary and alternative medical (CAM) treatments for their mental, emotional, and physical health needs, according to a 2008 study from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. These CAM therapies include traditional chinese medicine, acupuncture, indigenous medicines, herbalism, bodywork, and others. Additionally, in recent years the use of psychedelic therapies has shown remarkable safety and efficacy in treating even “treatment-resistant” mental health conditions. In general, CAM treatments are more cost effective and thus more accessible to diverse populations than standard treatments. In the case of psychedelic therapies, they are shown to be more effective in treating anxiety, depression, addiction and PTSD.

    Healers Hit Hard

    Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit CAM medicine healers particularly hard. Most CAM healers are not living within the usual safety nets of society, having broken from the normal models of working, and often do not qualify for government assistance programs. Many CAM healers offer their services with very little profit margin, and therefore have limited savings. Now many of these healers are not able to pay for basic needs like rent, food, and medicines.

    A survey reported that without receiving aid, 70% are likely to move from their communities to other locations or find other lines of work. In the Bay Area, Shai and Linda Flores* are healers in their 70’s and have been offering shamanic healing circles for their community for over 30 years. Three months after the initial stay-in-place orders, they have now spent all their savings and are unable to pay rent. Shai and Linda told us:

    “We try to keep our heads down and just do our work. We are currently living off our retirement money which we recognize that many people don’t have. Clearly, this is not sustainable, but we have not figured out how to safely open our work back up. Doing work on the telephone is a pale version of our practice,”

    When these healers do begin working again, the economic losses of COVID-19 may prevent them from making their rates flexible enough to stay accessible to more diverse or underserved populations. Just as alternative healing modalities were beginning to become more accessible and inclusive, this would be a major setback.

    Community-Based Resilience

    The Bay Area Healers Resilience Fund is a direct-giving project in the San Francisco Bay Area that provides needed financial assistance to those who have lost their income due to COVID-related measures.

    The fund offers grants of $500-$2500 to healers in need with fiscal sponsorship by the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Sciences (MAPS) and partnership with Holos Global. Grants are especially considered for elders, people of color, and underrepresented communities.

    Launched in May, the fund has already given eight grants to local healers. Pema Sheth, one of the first recipients, received $2000 which will help her pay for basic costs while she works to find a new way of offering healing services. Says Pema, “This work is my soul and heart’s longing, to assist people to find freedom. The money from the grant is going to pay my bills, my rent, and some to feed my cat. Thank you so much.”

    Frontlines for a Better World

    “This crisis is both a challenge and an opportunity for the Bay Area,” says Dana Kittrelle, co-creator of the Healers Resilience Fund. “How we respond to COVID-19 depends upon our foundation of healthy bodies and consciousness. As we collectively create new stories for our society through this time of rapid change, we need our healers’ support and wise perspective. Healers help us to create meaning, generate hope, and find resilience.”

    “Alternative healers are the frontlines for the mental health crisis we are currently facing.”

    If we aim to come out of this crisis stronger, then we must take care of the mental and emotional health of our population. With community solidarity, together we can weave a culture that is healthier, more connected, and more inclusive than ever before.

    Art by Marialba Quesada.

    This article was originally published on Medium at: https://medium.com/@connect_98705/urgency-of-community-aid-in-the-mental-health-crisis-778bce9519df



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