WASHINGTON — Seeking new ways to treat post-traumatic stress, the Department of Veterans Affairs is studying the use of transcendental meditation to help returning veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Veterans Affairs’ $5.9 billion system for mental-health care is under sharp criticism, particularly after the release of an inspector general’s report last month that found that the department has greatly overstated how quickly it treats veterans seeking mental-health care.
VA has a “huge investment” in mental-health care but is seeking alternatives to conventional psychiatric treatment, said Scott Gould, deputy secretary of veterans affairs.
“The reality is, not all individuals we see are treatable by the techniques we use,” Gould said at a summit Thursday in Washington on the use of TM to treat post-traumatic stress suffered by veterans and active-duty service members.
By some estimates, 10 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan show effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, numbers that are overwhelming the department.
“Conventional approaches fall woefully short of the mark, so we clearly need a new approach,” said Norman Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University’s medical school.
Rosenthal told the gathering that TM, a meditative practice that advocates say helps manage stress and depression, is “possibly even a game-changer” in how to treat PTSD.
VA is spending about $5 million on a dozen clinical trials and demonstration studies of three meditation techniques involving several hundred veterans from a range of conflicts, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Results from the studies will not be available for 12 to 18 more months.
But Gould said he was “encouraged” by the results of other trials presented at the summit.
Two independent pilot studies of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans showed a 50 percent reduction in symptoms of post-traumatic stress after eight weeks, according to the summit’s sponsor, the David Lynch Foundation, a charitable organization founded by the American filmmaker and television director.
Results from the initial phase of a long-term trial investigating the effects of TM on 60 cadets at Norwich University, a private military college in Vermont, have shown promise, school officials said at the summit.
Students practising TM at Norwich showed measurable improvement in the areas of resilience, constructive thinking and discipline over a control group not using the method. “The statistical effect we found in only two months was surprisingly large,” Carole Bandy, an associate professor of psychology who is directing the Norwich study, said at the summit.
“For us, it’s all about the evidence,” said Norwich President Richard Schneider, who added that he was a skeptic before the trial began.
Operation Warrior Wellness, an initiative of the David Lynch Foundation, is providing TM training to troops recovering from wounds at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. Soldiers report “dramatic improvements” in sleep, according to the foundation, as well as significant reductions in pain, stress and the use of prescription medications.
Lynch, the director of “Blue Velvet,” “Mulholland Drive” and the television series “Twin Peaks,” is a longtime practitioner of TM.
“The VA is very interested in what this can do,” Lynch said in a telephone interview Thursday. He acknowledged that many in the military are wary of transcendental meditation, with its New Age and mystic connotations.
“Big-time,” Lynch said. “They’re skeptical until they start hearing stories, or experiencing it for themselves.”