Clown therapy in Peru: Maria returns

Clown therapy in Peru: Maria returns

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

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