Healing After Tragedy

UNLV’s healing workshop helps Las Vegas comunity recover after 1 October

A group of about 30 people sits still, breathing deeply, while psychiatrist James Gordon gives cues from the front of the room. All of the participants have been impacted by the mass shooting that left 58 dead in Las Vegas on 1 October, and everyone is here to learn techniques for overcoming their trauma.

The UNLV School of Medicine brought Gordon’s organization, the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, to the university’s Foundation building on April 23 to help provide healing for the community since the shooting. The group’s help is badly needed.

Nevada ranked last for services for people with mental health challenges, according to Mental Health America. Factors considered in the ranking include the percentage of people with mental health issues who receive treatment, and the availability of services and professionals in the state. About 66 percent of mentally ill Nevadans do not receive treatment. The reasons for that range from lack of insurance or finances to cover costs, to a lack of treatment providers to begin with, according to Mental Health America.

UNLV’s new medical school, which welcomed its first class of students in the fall, is meant to help alleviate the shortage of health care professionals in the state, including mental health professionals. That can be seen by its commitment to selecting students partly on whether or not they have close ties to Nevada.

The goal is particularly urgent after the mass shooting because PTSD can be present in as many as 30 to 40 percent of survivors of such events, research from Boston University epidemiologist and dean Sandro Galea suggests.

Providing workshops such as this is one way the school hopes to help solve these problems now, before its first class of students even graduates.

“There’s more to keeping people alive,” Barbara Atkinson, founding dean of the medical school, said during the event. “We have to keep them healthy, including mentally healthy.”

The main goal for his workshop was to remove the stigma of seeking help. “It is perfectly normal after what you guys have been through to be traumatized,” Gordon said.

Gordon founded the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in 1991 and has taken his meditation workshops to war zones in Israel and Kosovo and to natural disaster sites in Haiti and Houston, among other places.

Participants at UNLV’s workshop tried the three main types of meditation that Gordon outlined: concentrated, mindfulness and expressive. “Meditation brings you into the ‘now’ so you’re not focused on the traumatic events you experienced,” Gordon said. “You let the thoughts come, but then you let the thoughts go.”

Concentrated meditation requires focusing on a particular sound or other stimulus. Gordon has participants think about their breathing, in and out, and think of the words soft while breathing in and belly while breathing out. Mindfulness requires being fully aware of your actions. Gordon had participants color and focus their attention on only that task, without being distracted by anything else. Expressive meditation is active and physical, requiring you to let up and let loose.

To help people feel more comfortable, Gordon had everyone keep their eyes closed while they shook—letting the shaking spread from their feet to their entire bodies—and swayed to Caribbean music. This type of meditation is particularly good to do in the morning or at the end of a workday, Gordon said, though he also emphasized that not every type of meditation is right for everyone.

Between exercises, participants also learned about the science behind trauma. Much of what Gordon taught would have been considered heresy when he was in medical school, he said, but newer research shows that mental and physical health are closely linked, making it important to take care of both.

Participants learned that it doesn’t matter if stressors are real or imagined—someone suffering from trauma cannot fully distinguish between the two—and that experiences can actually cause physical, structural changes in the brain, Gordon said.

However, those changes can be reversed with some work—like taking the knowledge gained from the workshop and incorporating it into everyday life. Mental health care may have a long way to go in Nevada, but work like this is certainly a step in the right direction.