Acupuncturists Help Traumatized Communities

A Hurricane Harvey survivor receives acupuncture from a volunteer.
A Hurricane Harvey survivor receives acupuncture from a volunteer.

Food, blankets, water, shelter, clothing….these are the basics we immediately think about during natural disaster recovery. The idea of not having any one of these things after your home is destroyed is frightening, and constantly worrying about where your next meal will come from or where you’ll sleep that night is exhausting. The good news is that major organizations like Red Cross as well as local grassroots efforts started by people who want to do something to make a difference often provide these necessities as quickly as possible. With each hurricane, tornado, wildfire and earthquake, these endeavors grow stronger. Thanks to the lessons of Hurricane Katrina, some of which we’re drawing upon now in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, we know that addressing the effects of trauma sooner than later can save people from years of suffering from life-altering mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder. We also learned from Hurricane Katrina that acupuncture does wonders for entire communities.

As Hurricane Harvey approached the Texas coast, the volunteers at Acupuncturists Without Borders (AWB) did what they do best and got to work to prepare for the worst. Once the waters receded and area was deemed safe, on September 19th AWB opened their trauma and stress relief acupuncture clinic and welcomed in twenty survivors. To date volunteers have administered over 250 acupuncture treatments.

“As the patients sit around a circle with the needles on their ears, you can feel a sense of peace in the room,” said volunteer acupuncturist Camila Barnes.

The organization has quite a bit of experience. Over the last twelve years, AWB has provided over 1 million acupuncture treatments in thirty-three countries. It all began thanks to Diana Fried, an acupuncturist from New Mexico. Having worked in the field of international development before becoming an acupuncturist, she knew there was an opportunity to bring acupuncture to people in need but didn’t know what that would look like. Then came hurricane Katrina.

“I saw the government’s lack of response and how horrible things were I realized that we as a professional community have this amazing medicine with powerful effects that can really help people with trauma healing,” Fried explained.

Not long after, the idea came to life when Fried and other acupuncture colleagues arrived in New Orleans and began treating evacuees, residents, first responders, emergency personnel, volunteers and other care providers. As word spread and acupuncturists learned there was an opportunity to help, that sparked a movement within the acupuncture field. Seventy-five practitioners from all over the country came to offer their professional services. Over 8,000 people were treated.

When the next natural disaster came, the lessons from the Hurricane Katrina clinics carried over. Then AWB became an official organization. Then came the idea of expanding beyond natural disaster relief and providing clinics for veterans and communities in impoverished and war-torn areas around the world. Over the last twelve years, AWB has gone on to train approximately 3,500 practitioners.

“There is nothing else quite like acupuncture that has such an immediate impact on large groups that can be treated all together,” Fried explained, “at such low cost and with no side effects and no cultural barriers.” 

Some who have received treatment in Houston are feeling the benefits and have come back for more. “I’ve done this two times and last week my friends called me ‘momma zen’ because I was so calm,” Sandra, an evacuee in Houston, said after receiving acupuncture.

Several survivors of Hurricane Harvey sit together as they receive acupuncture.
Several survivors of Hurricane Harvey sit together as they receive acupuncture.

While many may not immediately think about addressing trauma after a natural disaster, it makes sense for communities to embrace acupuncture as an additional resource for relief.

“I think our culture as a whole is starting to understand trauma more, but it’s been an uphill battle to try to get people to understand that when there’s crises, emergencies and traumatic events that if you don’t treat the trauma, you’re really not getting at the core of what’s going on,” Fried explained. “They need help with their trauma in order to be able to perform and function and not only get through the next day but to be able to think about their lives.”

A 2008 study published in the journal Nature confirms Fried’s point. The study analyzed the mental health and suicide trends in communities affected by Hurricane Katrina. A year after the storm, the number of cases of PTSD in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi rose from 15% to 21% while the percentage of people feeling suicidal thoughts more than doubled. It became clear that addressing the trauma is just as critical as providing the bare necessities.

Just as the acupuncture clinics in Houston were starting, Puerto Rico was on the mind of everyone in the organization. Acupuncturist Graham Marks, a volunteer who has served in AWB clinics in New Orleans, Haiti and in New York after Superstorm Sandy, received this email from a friend of his who lives in Rincon on the western coast of Puerto Rico: “We are alive, we have lost everything, no food or water, send Acupuncturists Without Borders, everyone is traumatized.” The good news—AWB is working with local acupuncturists to establish a clinic soon.

When asked if she ever though AWB would have this large of an impact, Fried humbly responded, “It’s been literally one day at a time. It’s just been a very organic arising of what’s needed next, like what is the path that it looks like we’re supposed to be going to make the next effort happen to help the next community of people to connect with the next group whether in the US or globally.”

In fact, I spoke to Fried the morning after the mass shooting in Las Vegas. I broke the news to her. It became obvious where AWB was headed next.

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