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How We Heal

January 26th, 2016

Last week my dear friend Fernando Ortiz Monasterio called me. We met quite by accident more than a decade ago while watching the sun set on an isolated beach in Baja California and bonded immediately. He was an engineer from Mexico City and worked with the Huichol Indians who live in the inaccessible canyons of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains.

When he found out that I was a psychiatrist who worked with Native peoples he told me about a 10-year epidemic that affected children in boarding schools; they became possessed by demons that transforming them into aggressive animal’s, and it lasted for days, sometimes weeks’.

In my work as Chief of Psychiatry at the Phoenix Indian Medical Center for many years I learned about the profound impact that witchcraft/ the casting of spells/ demonic possession/ could have on people. I also came to appreciate the profound impact that rituals, ceremonies, prayer, drumming, and natural medicines could have in opening channels into the unconscious mind. It changed people’s behaviors, even their crazy thoughts, and as a result I have come to incorporate such healing practices In my own work.

Fernando asked me if I thought I could be helpful in dealing with this problem, and told him I might, but if I became involved I would need an invitation from the tribe to do the work. It took us a year to work out the details and gather the team of three Americans and three Mexicans all with specialized skills to participate, and it has been the most profound healing I’ve ever participated in, (Kindling Spirit, Hammerschlag, C. A., Turtle Island Press, 2011)

When Fernando called, he wanted me to capsulize in a sentence what the critical elements were that promoted healing? I said, at its core it was belief in the practice and in the practitioner. It didn’t matter if you were a neurosurgeon or shaman, you needed to believe in the system, and trust the person treating you. You also had to want to get well, and be surrounded by a community of loving support.

You don’t have to be possessed by demons in the wilderness to experience how to get healthier; want to see how to get well when surrounded by a community of support; come to the Clown Town Healing Fest (clowntownhealingfest.com) in Phoenix, Feb. 27, 2016 and experience how we can heal in community.


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Slide Presentation June 04.109

Slide Presentation June 04.112

New Year, Old Disgrace

January 10th, 2016

Just before the New Year, Phoenix police found the body of an unidentified woman sitting on a couch ceremonially enshrined in towels. The corpse had been there for days; almost immediately the suspect was found…a 39-year-old, seriously mentally ill woman, who insisted that the body was her own.

There are lots of chronically mentally ill people on the streets and in prisons in every city in American because the seriously disturbed have been shamefully neglected, abandoned, and left untreated.

We got into this position in the 1960’s and ‘70’s when there was a concerted effort to de-institutionalize the chronically mentally ill. It was a noble idea; close down the medieval, locked wards of State Mental Institutions, and get people back into the community where they could be supported and followed. The result has been that over the last 50 years, the number of psychiatric beds has shrunk from 650,000 to 65,000; the most seriously disturbed wound up in the streets and in prisons (the police have become the first responders for the chronically mentally ill). What’s happened is, the funds that were promised were never delivered. The money was siphoned off by a delivery system that was ripe for fraud.

The recent report by Dr. E. Fuller Torrey and colleagues entitled, Fraud, Theft, Waste and private profits: The Fate of Money Intended to Treat People With Serious Mental Illness (Mental Illness Policy.Org, Sept. 28, 2015) offers depressing evidence that billions of dollars allocated by the states to provide mental health services for the chronically mentally ill have been siphoned off by fraud, theft and private profits.

Torrey estimates that between 6-10% of a States mental health funds ($4-$8 billion/year) are being lost to fraud; most to excess profits taken by for-profit managed-care companies. Administrative costs in for-profit psychiatric hospitals are 32% higher than nonprofit psychiatric hospitals, and 83% higher than public psychiatric hospitals. The profit motive in healthcare delivery does not mix well with our social responsibility or our humanity.

The profoundly mentally ill in this Country are vulnerable, powerless, and unrepresented, and a national disgrace. I applaud Dr. Torrey’s scholarship, consciousness, and courage to tell us clearly what we need to do. We must hold State Mental Health Agencies responsible for assertive oversight in how mental health monies are spent; and we must expand the Federal Health Care Fraud Prevention Task Force to deal with crooked institutions and practitioners who are defrauding the system.

The Light at Years End

December 27th, 2015

This year is coming to an end and I’m becoming consumed by these dark days and times. The recent attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, a xenophobic, narcissistic blowhard running for President and turning the Country into a polarizing, reality TV show. The gun control debate has not stemmed the proliferation of assault rifles, there is a refugee crisis, the Greek debt showdown, and the potential undoing of the European Union; it’s easy to feel sad, angry, and despairing.

Then, I watched the awesome spectacle of a night of shooting stars, and it helped me see things from a different perspective. Meteor showers are the result of streams of cosmic debris entering the Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrating into celestial fireworks. I wondered, how do we create light from the debris that descends upon us? How do we move beyond these global demonstrations of the worst of our humanity, and remind ourselves of what is best about us?

We are all fading stars, and sparks we want to leave behind are the the reminders of our capacity to love. I watched the shooting stars and saw the lights in my life. The antidote to despair, fear, and rage is to find what you love and love it more… your family, friends, values, purpose; they are the light that illuminates the darkness.

To all of you Relatives, I wish you peace and continued growth in the New Year; may you walk in beauty in the healing light of love.  I say this for All My Relations, Mi Takuye Oyasin.

Clown therapy in Peru: Maria returns

December 14th, 2015

For the last 7 years, I have been traveling with Dr. Patch Adams, the world’s most recognized humanitarian clown, and 100 other clowns from around the world, to participate in the Belén Festival. This is a community health project that educates people, promotes wellness, and brings joy, hope, and healing to this impoverished community in Iquitos, Peru.

Clowns conduct dozens of workshops (from the art of trapeze to puppetry); they paint murals, create art projects, and visit hospitals, prisons, and orphanages. In addition, for the last 4 years, clowns who also are health care professionals conduct mental health clinics in the streets.

I have described the street clinics previously. We walk the streets announcing our presence with a bullhorn and tack up flyers as we go, inviting people to come and talk to us about any problems they are struggling with. Clinicians talk to people in a tight circle, in a public place (school yards, ball fields, wharves, markets), and spend up to 20 minutes with them. Twenty minutes is not a long time, but it’s more than most people (especially women) get to spend with somebody who is actively listening to their story.

The clown clinicians listen empathically. They have the ability to stand in patients’ shoes and convey an understanding of their situations, and they have a desire to help. Clinicians do not make diagnoses or prescribe drugs; they focus not on people’s traumas but rather on their resilience and strengths. They give advice, make recommendations, tell a story/parable, and sometimes bestow blessings and sacred amulets. In that short a time, you can make a profound connection with another human being.

Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag transforms into a clown clinician at the Belén Festival in Iquitos, Peru.

Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag transforms into a clown clinician at the Belén Festival in Iquitos, Peru.

Last year, I shared the story of Maria, a middle-aged woman who the very day I saw her had decided to kill herself. Suffering severe emotional and physical abuse, she went to church that morning and asked for gift lists for what she was about to do. After leaving the church, she bumped into a clown announcing the arrival of our mental health clinic, which brought her over to us.

For the first time since doing these clinics, I believed this patient had the potential for taking her life, but hospitalization was not an option and the best I could do was to get her to agree not to kill herself until I could see her again at the next street clinic in a couple of days. I gave her an amulet and suggested she hold it during her morning prayers. I also encouraged her to remember how we found each other so miraculously that day and the promise she made to me to come back and see me in 2 days.

Maria did come back, and this time brought along her 16-year-old daughter and 18-year-old pregnant daughter. For the first time, Maria and her girls told each other their whole story. Then we talked about choices, and before leaving I gave each girl an amulet and a blessing telling them that together they had the strength to find a way through these hard times.

This year, I asked our street clinic coordinator if she could find Maria and her daughters. It took a while because they’d left the abusive home they were in and were living in their own “house.” I visited the three of them (and their now 1-year-old baby) in their home, a single room built on a wooden platform lashed onto an abandoned water tower, and partly covered with a tin roof.

The success of the mental health clinics in Peru show just how quickly humans can make intimate connections.

The success of the mental health clinics in Peru show just how quickly humans can make intimate connections.

I brought along some nonperishable grocery items, and we greeted each other joyfully. They proudly showed me their amulets; we put some chairs together, and talked about what had happened over the last year – how, with the help of neighbors, they found this place and were able to move out of their abusive home, and were living happily together.

When we left, they thanked me effusively. Their gratitude had far less to do with the groceries than for having remembered them and the specialness of our miraculous connection.

We are psychiatrists; we know about transference and how quickly people can make intimate connections. An active listener who comes to the relationship with an open heart can practice this kind of clown therapy. As psychiatrists, imagine how much more fun we would have if instead of doing the 15-minute medication reviews that focus on side effects, we listened to people’s stories and shared some of our own wisdom. Not only might we prescribe less medication, but it would also remind us of why we came into the profession.

In late February 2016, Patch and I will be conducting a clown therapy workshop at the Clown Town Healing Fest. If you want to stimulate your creative juices, launch your intuitive wisdom, and learn about clown therapy, join us and reconnect with the joy of your healing soul.

Dr. Hammerschlag is chief of community mental health at the Gesundheit! Institute. He is also the author of several books on healing and spirituality, including “Kindling Spirit: Healing from Within” (New York: Turtle Island Press, 2012) and “The Dancing Healers: A Doctor’s Journey of Healing With Native Americans” (San Francisco: Harper, 1988). Dr. Hammerschlag’s website is healingdoc.com.

Living with Bewildering Uncertainty

December 8th, 2015

We are living in an age of escalating dread… with random killings, bombings, racist terror, and seemingly endless wars. We are all feeling vulnerable, and these reminders of our mortality are intensified for me because of the changes taking place in my own house.

I have lived in the same home for 45 years; originally built in 1937, it’s a big house surrounded by adobe walls, on an acre of land that needs lots of attention. It has been the refuge and ceremonial foundation of our family life; we have celebrated all the lifecycle events here, and survive the traumas; I shudder at the thought of leaving the sacred grounds.

Alas, the time has clearly come to downsize; the house is old, the plumbing needs replacement, the heating and air-conditioning pumps need upgrading, and all these external changes are mirrored in the breakdowns of our own pipes and pumps. We are getting old (the kids and grandkids remind us we have already arrived), and if we move I’d like this to be the last one.

The question is, where do we go? We’ve looked at retirement communities, some luxurious with five-star concierge services and offering graduated care should you ever need it. Even the more modest ones seem like end-of-the-road “gray farms” of impending decay to me. It’s not my cup of tea, I don’t want to live in such a closed community. I need a place where I can stroll with young and old people, a community with arts, theater, music, a corner coffee shop to sip and have a conversation.

The Phoenix downtown is experiencing a vibrant revitalization and has all those options available, but my wife is less enthusiastic about the neighborhood; she would prefer a 55+ gated community with amenities and planned activities. The thought of it makes me cringe.

In three weeks we will be married for 55 years, it’s been a wonderful, loving partnership with plenty of challenging times and we are committed to hanging out together. However, I’ve got to say that I’m not use to living in such bewildering and uncertain times and it’s intensifying my vulnerabilities.

In these times that frighten and demoralize us, remember what you value most because that will inspire and give you hope.

Last Man Standing is Sitting

November 23rd, 2015

I may be the last man standing who has never owned a cell phone or hand-held computer device. For years I have railed against these Instruments because instead of the promise that they would free us to pursue more leisure/fun activities, they have actually enslaved us. We are never more than an arms length away from our smart phones; we don’t talk to each other at the dinner table anymore; instant accessibility has made it impossible to be where we are, because with every ring, beep, or vibration, we are invited to interrupt whatever we’re doing to be someplace other than where we are.

I am not a technophobe; I depend on my computer for business, but at the end of the day I shut it down and leave my office. I stuck to my guns and refused to be seduced by its conveniences; until several weeks ago…that’s when my world changed. Upon returning from Guatemala several weeks ago my computer died. For 2 weeks it was in a chronic state of repair and I was unable to work. I was frantic, incapacitated, felt so helpless I got angry I became anxious and depressed.

So last Sunday I bought the iPhone 6 S so I can stay in business if my computer fails in the future.  Now the question is, can I not become seduced by its magic. I feel like a Star Fleet officer talking to the cosmos, I have instantaneous access to my business; it’s a flashlight so I can now read menus in dark restaurants; dictate messages, take pictures, make videos, get directions, and a sweet woman’s voice answers any question and supplies references.

The last man standing is now sitting; as I write I’m talking to my granddaughter while actually looking at her… I’m hoping I can turn it off.


Clowning with PTSD

November 3rd, 2015

I’ve just returned from Guatemala and the first ever Patch Adams/Gesundheit! clown trip comprised exclusively of disabled war veterans. 10 Veterans  (six men and four women ranging from their late 20s to late 60s) all suffering from PTSD sustained in wars from Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Gulf wars, agreed to become clowns for a week to see it’s potential impact on their illness.

Patch brought along 10 Gesundheit! Clowns as staff, and they had prepped the Vets about what they’d be doing, and creating a clown costume, but we only met face-to-face when we arrived in Guatemala City. The first night we had an introductory circle, and the folowing morning an introductory clown workshop. In spite of their uncertainties and trepidation, the Vets opened themselves to the experience.

Dressed up, they visited locked institutions, hospitals, orphanages, schools, and marketplaces; saw severely disabled people (both young and old), and sang, performed puppetry, played games, pushed wheelchairs,  and departed from their ordinary realities to be fully in the moment.

Twice a day we piled into our bus to go to each venue, and had time to talk to each other. From day to day you could see their growing ease at making immediate, openhearted connections, and by the end of the week every participant had opened themselves to places within that for a long time they had closed their hearts to. For me it was an awakening experience as well; I have never spent that much time with war veterans and it allowed me to see them and their suffering in a new light.

The experience proved what we all know to be true, that love, caring, compassion is good for us at the cellular level, explainable by biochemical and neural mechanisms that activate the brains pleasure centers. Whatever its biological underpinnings, the fact is that doing this work eases suffering, our own as well.

We’ll see what the long-term impact of this experience will be on  these Vets, but the trip reminded me that the greatest act of revolution in contemporary life is to be able to come to every day with joy. Let your clown out Relatives, because it will make you feel good and lighten your load.

PS: if you want to see how clowns can create a healing community support the clown town healing fast that will take place in Phoenix in February 2016 check it out on the website clowntownhealingfest.com and be sure to take a “red-nose selfie” which you can find on the bottom of the homepage.


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Goose Egg to Gold

October 12th, 2015

I’ve been spending most of my time this year making a dream come true. The Clown Town Healing Fest is going to take place in Phoenix Arizona, February 26-28, 2016. My friend Patch Adams MD and I, along with many clown friends will mobilize the city’s healthcare resources to inspire people to live healthier lives.

From doctors, to therapists and support groups of every description, all these resources will tell their stories to inspire people to get well before they get sick. This is the first practical demonstration of the important cultural shift in healthcare delivery from an interventional model to one that focuses on prevention.

Sharing this vision has been easy; raising the money to pull this off has been more challenging. I recruited two friends, my “Golden Geese” to reach out and solicit donations because I hate asking for money; to me it smacks of neediness, helplessness, and begging. The Golden Geese said they’d be happy to do it; they cared for me, and it was an important event that would bring our community together in healing. The fact that it was a 501(c)(3) profit and the donations were tax-deductible made it a no-brainer.

A beautifully packaged solicitation letter was sent and I waited for the money to roll in. Alas, it didn’t, the Geese were slow to follow up, and it became clear to me that if my dream was ever going to materialize I was going to have to ask directly; the thought of it made my mouth dry and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.

Amazingly, it was easier than I had anticipated, because I wasn’t asking for myself but something I passionately believed in. I didn’t feel cheap or moneygrubbing, I felt good and friends felt good about helping me. It was a revolutionary awakening for me.

For years I’ve gotten away with thinking that my knowledge, my ability to conceptualize and tell the story, was enough to inspire others to execute the vision. It turns out that if you want to achieve vision, execution is more important than knowledge. So I changed, and acknowledged that the way it is, is not the way it was, and if I wanted to make my dream a reality I had to act differently to make it happen…t’s a great life lesson.

From goose egg to gold, the dream is happening, and I’m asking you friends and relatives, to dip into your cookie jar and go to clowntownhealingfest.com and make a donation of any amount to help us make this paradigm shifting dream a reality. Any donation will let you take a ‘selfie’ with a red nose and you’ll join us in this red nose revolution that heals in community.

Welcome Home

September 14th, 2015

These last weeks’ have been intense for me. I am in the midst of making the Clown Town Healing Fest happen. This inaugural event promotes health and healing in community, and has reminded me once again of my organizational inadequacies and my intolerance of bureaucracy’s. It takes so long to get things done, and to have to depend on others to follow through makes my skin crawl.

My personal frustrations were intensified by what was happening around me in these last weeks. There is a phantom sniper skulking around the major freeway through town randomly shooting at vehicles. In the last couple of weeks there been eleven incidents and people are as focused on the overpasses as they are on the roads. There are always the conspiracy theorists churning paranoid fears that this is of a government plot to take away the right to bear arms. It’s enough to make you shake your head in disbelief.

Then there is Donald Trump who is leading the polls as a serious Presidential candidate. I can’t imagine this insufferable, narcissistic blowhard representing America and its principles, to the world.

Then the problem of refugees seeking asylum, it’s an overwhelming global problem. In Europe alone, hundreds of thousands of refugees have arrived this year and thousands have died trying to get there. They have left countries terrorized by war and dissention; they have been harassed and rejected as countries struggle to absorb them. Then I saw a picture of a Syrian family who’d been on the road for months, a young German woman greeted these strangers upon their arrival at Munich’s central railroad station with a sign that read Welcome Home, offered them a hot drink, and gave their child a teddy bear.

That act of kindness restored my equilibrium… put my misery in perspective, and restored and my faith in the potential for our shared humanity. Thank you.

To my Jewish relatives, I wish you a Happy New Year 5776, may it be a year of peace, health and welcome homes.

The Language of the Great Spirit

August 24th, 2015

I’ve just returned from my annual clown trip to Iquitos Peru, with Patch Adams and 100 clowns from all over the world to participate in an international healthcare project in an impoverished community.

The clowns come from different countries, backgrounds, ages, education, jobs, but we come together here and become one tribe. We gather in welcome, hugging, dancing, and chanting we initiate ourselves into a community that does healing work 12 hours a day.

For the last seven years I have participated because… I am reminded of the parts of me I like best… and because it gives me hope for humanity. The experience is always transformative, and sometimes it’s transcendent; those are moments when you’re moved beyond ordinary consciousness, so present that every cell in your body feels alive, and feeling one with the cosmos.

I made a home visit to a middle aged woman I saw in one of our mental health Street clinics last year. She was so suicidal I thought she needed to be hospitalized, but of course there are none for poor patients. She made a “no-suicide” contract with me and promised to see me again at the next street clinic.

When she arrived, it was with her two daughters, and all shared a story of profound mental and physical abuse. We made a real connection, we don’t have drugs, and instead I gifted each with a sacred amulet and a blessing.

This year, I asked our clinic coordinator if she could find them again, and it took awhile; they had left the abusive home and were in their own “house”; a wooden platform lashed to an abandoned water tower, partially covered with a tin roof. I brought along some nonperishable grocery items and we sat and talked. They are happy to be living together, feeling good and getting by. They showed me their amulets I’d given them, and when it was time to leave we hugged amidst tears. They thanked me repeatedly, and it had far less to do with the groceries I’d brought, than it did for having remembered the specialness of our connection. In that moment I felt our shared humanity.

Such a moment happened again on the final day after returning to our hotel following the closing parade. This spectacular farewell is always an electric high, and the clowns were dancing, singing, and drumming in the plaza in front of the hotel. I went in to take a shower, and they were still going strong when I got out. I walked to the balcony window, and looking down joined in the movement. Suddenly, without any signal, everyone turned around, looked up at me and began chanting; in that transcendent moment understood that we are the language of the Great Spirit.

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Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag, M.D., CPAE is a psychiatrist, author, and professional keynote speaker. He is an authority in the science of psychoneuroimmunology mind, body, spirit medicine and speaks about health and wellness, healing, leadership and authenticity . He has delivered motivational keynote speeches to corporate and business clients around the world.