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Healing Without Harming

The Listening Project Takes Off Across the Nation

More than two years ago, I posted here an essay called "The Astonishing Power of Listening," which I wrote because I found it heartbreaking that so many people seemed to have forgotten the power that listening has to heal...or had been persuaded that only therapists really know how to do it the "right" way (…). And I wrote how listening helps without requiring that the speaker be classified as mentally ill.

Robert Dove, a longtime counselor, tells the story of a phone call he took from a young man who was intensely upset and who began to describe the terrible things he had been through. As Robert listened, the young man began to weep. Robert told the young man that he understood why he was crying, given all that had happened to him. The young man corrected him, saying he was crying not because of his disturbing experiences but because no one had ever listened to him before.

A New York Times article published in late December and sent to me by my colleague, psychologist Dr. Janet Mindes, was the latest documentation of the healing power of support from the community when people have been traumatized, and of course respectful listening by someone from the community is an important kind of support.

Having worked a long time with people who had been harmed in the mental health system, about a dozen years ago I began increasingly to meet with and listen to a population that was new to me: military veterans, many of whom had also been harmed in the mental health system.

I started a project that consists of pairing one veteran with a nonveteran who simply listens -- truly just listens, without asking questions or making comments but just giving the veteran the gift of the time and space to say whatever they want to say and to be silent when they choose, something that many have never been offered before.

This is about helping veterans and also helping others who suffer and who are also helped by this kind of listening.

I want to tell you what has happened in the couple of years since I began the listening project, which I call The Welcome Johnny and Jane Home Project (WJJHP), because at the time I started it, aiming to have every nonveteran listen to the story of a veteran from any war, I met with considerable skepticism. When the book in which I proposed these sessions -- When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans -- was published two years ago, the publicist who tried and failed to get me a single interview in any of the national media told me that editors and producers said, "Why should we interview her about that? We can get Colin Powell to talk about what veterans need."

At that time, Colin Powell was not talking about listening to veterans, but happily, this past Memorial Day in a public speech at a holiday celebration, he strongly emphasized the importance of listening to veterans. So did the wonderful writer Sebastian Junger in a Memorial Day weekend piece in the Washington Post (…

With high and increasing rates of suicide, homelessness, substance abuse, and family breakdown among veterans and high rates among the general population, it is clear that the skyrocketing numbers of Americans diagnosed and treated as mentally ill have -- at the very least -- not sufficiently been helped by traditional approaches used in the mental health establishment. In contrast, there is massive evidence that ordinary human connection and social support are healing.* Although some therapists are wonderfully helpful, some either do not help or are frankly harmful, and the astonishing numbers of psychotropic pills ingested across this country and the globe only help some people sometimes but harm far more (this last was painstakingly and powerfully documented by Pulitzer-nominated Robert Whitaker in Anatomy of an Epidemic).

Listening is not a panacea, but it is often very helpful and does not add to already-suffering people the burden of believing themselves to be "sick," of thinking that they somehow should be "over it" ("it" being whatever trauma they have been through) by now.

The Welcome Johnny and Jane Home Project is now happening all over the country. Among other places, in Ohio, Steve Stone has galvanized people in a number of organizations in his area — including an Iraq War veteran and Purple Heart winner who is a student at North Central State College and works for a country veteran support administration; NCSC President Dr. Dorey Diab; The Ohio State University-Mansfield Campus; and the 179th Airlift Wing of the Air National Guard — to plan a series of events just before Veterans Day to kick off the project. That in itself would be wonderful enough, but in addition, Stone plans to expand the work for use with survivors of trauma other than war as well. Also important is that Stone chose to do this in his role as a Trustee of North Central State College, although his day job is Executive Director of the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Ashland County (Ohio), because he does not want this "to be mis-perceived as a mental health initiative" rather than a nonpathologizing, community-oriented one.

In Huntington, Indiana, and Portland, Maine, individuals have begun the WJJH Project. At San Jose Community College, a faculty member immediately acted on my suggestion that faculty members throughout the country offer course credit to both veterans and nonveterans who do a listening session, thus helping bridge on their own campuses the awful divide that Col. (Ret.) David Sutherland calls the "epidemic of disconnection" between the two groups.

When I spoke to a small group of very smart, perceptive, caring people in Joshua Tree, CA, sponsored by Mil-Tree Collective coordinated by Cheryl Montelle, that very night Marsha Straubing, who teaches listening at Antioch University, volunteered to do a listening session, and a Vietnam veteran that same night told me privately that his way of dealing with his own war trauma had for decades been to listen to others, and now he was ready to have someone listen to him. I paired them up, and they soon did a listening session that was important and rewarding for them both.

The vibrant organization called Wellness Works in Glendale, California (, which has already been providing nonpathologizing, alternative ways of healing -- such as acupuncture and massage -- to veterans has taken up the WJJH Project mantle in their area. Headed by Mary Lu Coughlin, Kathy Lynch, and Wesley Cloys, on July 27 they will hold an orientation meeting where prospective listeners will meet each other and have a chance to discuss Chapter 6 of my book (the chapter about the interviews), the brief video with responses to Frequently Asked Questions about the Project that will likely be on my site within the next week or so, and any other questions they might raise.

Col. Sutherland, who founded and heads the Staff Sgt. Donnie D. Dixon Center -- the nonpathologizing and community-focused orientation of which is reflected in their goal "Enabling our veterans and their families to thrive where they live" -- features the WJJH Project on his Center's website (…). So does Vietnam veteran, social worker and National Veterans Foundation director Shad Meshad on his (, and it is especially wonderful that the NVF both sends people onto the streets of Los Angeles every morning to find and help homeless veterans and has a phone-in line whose staff take calls and provide help to veterans from all over the country and even from active-duty servicemembers calling from as far away as Afghanistan. Callers to the NVF are now told about the WJJH Project and, if interested, are put in touch with us so that we can connect them with listeners. Those who serve veterans at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America are letting those who contact them know about our Project and offering to connect them with us as well.

The magazine of the mammoth Military Officers Association of America published an article about the Project. And later this month, I have been asked to work with the American Legion Auxiliary to assist interested ALA members and chapters to develop and strengthen their organization's activities to promote veterans' rehabilitation through connecting them with the creative arts activities and listening projects that are underway in their communities.

Vietnam veteran, photographer, and storyteller Ted Engelmann contacted me after reading my book and said he thought there should be a National Day of Listening to Veterans. I thought that was a great idea and made many visits to Capitol Hill, meeting with legislative aides of many members of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees from both political no avail. But in May, when Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee with Family Services of Rhode Island and Psychological Centers hosted in the Statehouse a talk I gave about this work, he officially proclaimed Days of Listening to Veterans, naming several holidays on which citizens of his state are especially urged to listen with respect and without judgment to a veteran's story. I was told that the plan is that on each Memorial Day, July 4th, and Veterans Day, press releases will be issued to remind people of the proclamation and urge them to participate. At my talk, half of those who attended put their names and contact information on a signup sheet to serve as listeners, and Family Services of Rhode Island and Psychological Centers have agreed to provide the space and coordinate the work, helping pair veterans with listeners.

Furthermore, Rhode Island's Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts, who read the proclamation before the lecture in May, has proposed that the national conference for Lieutenant Governors to be held next week approve a resolution for Days of Listening to Veterans (

I was so lucky that awhile back, when I gave a talk at the Harvard Club of New York, Tony Smith, a coach for transformational leadership, attended and has been kindly and insightfully advising me since then ( When I told him I was frustrated that so few people seemed to be interested in becoming involved in the WJJH Project, he gave me this wise counsel: He said that when we see things from a different perspective and believe we know something that might be helpful, we should not become frustrated when our efforts seem not to take hold. He pointed out that I was used to being a problem-solver and that simply offering people a solution if, for whatever reason, they were not ready to hear it could wear one down from the repeated disappointments and the perplexity of why they didn't seem to get it. He urged me instead to consider anything I did to be simply "a conversation" about the Project, and he said, "You never know when one of these conversations will lead somewhere."

Tony Smith was so right. Jewels of interest have begun to appear in unexpected places, many of which I am not yet naming here, because we have just scheduled initial meetings to get them going. I am so grateful to Tony Smith and to all of the people across the nation who are doing the essential, humanizing work of listening.


*see Chapter 6 of When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans

©Copyright 2013 by Paula J. Caplan All rights reserved