Posted on Tue, Feb. 14, 2006
Two kids spar in the center of the room, jousting like fencers.
Shea Gravesandy, 11, and his sister, Moremi, 13, of Pembroke Pines are beating each other with bats -- yet they're giggling, their laughter bouncing off the polished wood floor.
It's not a fight; it's therapy. The bats are made of foam, and the activity is designed to help the kids let off steam that could easily erupt into anger or injury.
''The fighting takes them through the process of hitting as opposed to going out and using a weapon,'' explains physical therapist Mena Yaa Bradua Vassall, who owns the Wawa Aba Wellness Centre in Hollywood with her husband, Dr. Robert Vassall, a psychiatrist.
It's all part of the treatment the husband-and-wife team developed when they merged their practices in the late 1980s. They use herbs, music and drama as they go beyond medicine and psychotherapy to help children heal from traumatic events.
Mena Vassall's specialty is working with children on emotional issues and mental rehabilitation, and her husband's office is on the other side of the building.
''I handle pain management here,'' she says. ''But mostly it's emotional disorders. We all have energy in our bodies and sometimes that can lock into different places in the body. When we're sad or anxious, the energy might lock into the stomach and go into illness, when in fact it's an emotional energy locked in there. I help my patients to let go of the energy cysts'' by moving the energy through the body.
``We use energy from our hands to shift the energy and verbally coach them to let go of the energy that they're holding in their body. It shouldn't be mysterious. We are made of energy.''
Students at Wawa Aba -- some are patients, some are not -- write and perform skits to help themselves work through difficult issues, releasing their fears and anger in the safe environment of play acting. They confront troubling events from their past in attempts to work through the energy that might be causing problems in their lives. As part of the learning experience, the principles of Kwanzaa and the eight principles of family from Ghana are incorporated into their skits.
Robert Vassall sometimes directs his patients to write scripts to play out scenarios that led to trauma.
''I ask what would they like to hear that would help them to feel better? Now they can hear those words that maybe their mama never said to them and come to resolution and healing,'' he says.
``With dance, they let go of the energy, the person can just lose themselves in the dance until they can release whatever energies are bothering them or disturbing them.''
They added the music and drama to work with ''children who had serious problems with anger management,'' Mena Vassall says. ``There were challenges with allergies and side effects that affected the children and their emotions. That led us to Ghana, where we studied natural herbal medicines and their uses with mental disorders.''
Mena Vassall uses herbs in her practice, called Nature Works for You Inc., mixing lotions to help calm patients with anxiety, stimulate those with depression, and relieve those in pain.
''A lot of plants that we're calling weeds are medicinal plants,'' she says. ``I keep weeds in my garden, much to the displeasure of my homeowners association.''
MORE THAN MEDICINE
Robert Vassall also realized that some aspects of mental illness are associated with cultural imbalances and dysfunctional families.
``People who may have seen some violence, one parent being violent toward another, people who may have had issues with childhood trauma, rape, molestation, abuse, neglect. People who may have been involved in traumatic accidents or may have seen someone die in an accident or get shot. These things are very disturbing to people and disturbing to their lives. This leaves a residue in people's lives that constantly interferes with their ability to have relationships with people, to live their lives.
''I try to go beyond just giving them medication,'' Robert Vassall says. ``The way insurance has set things up, psychiatrists just give medicines. I'm not satisfied with that, so I do a lot more.''
He tells of a patient who was verbally abused as a child, and about how children believe what they learn about themselves from the adult authority figures in their lives. They are defenseless against attacks, and can't differentiate lies from reality. If children are told or treated as if they are bad or worthless, that is what they believe is true. Untangling adults from such mean-spirited upbringings is challenging, he says, but not impossible.
``I tell people to give me six months. I help them see that the perceptions they had as a child were not accurate perceptions, and they can begin to see themselves in a different light. It's difficult, it's painful, but that's what healing is about. It works.''