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The path to healing

September 1, 2007
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An Alabama provider adds a labyrinth to its campus

Life's journey does not follow a straight path. It involves twists and turns at different points along the way, and behavioral healthcare professionals can provide support during difficult times. As the need to find innovative approaches for therapeutic treatment has grown, the prevalence of labyrinths has experienced a resurgence.

Unlike a maze, in which you can get lost, a labyrinth consists of one circuitous path that leads to the center and out again. Its various twists and turns provide a metaphor for life and its challenges. Materials I have reviewed suggest that labyrinths often bring peace to a troubled situation and that they can help quiet the mind, soothe the soul, and mend the heart.

Labyrinths are found across the globe and have been used over thousands of years. They do not belong to any religion, denomination, or culture. In the United States, their therapeutic use has exploded in the past 15 years,1 as people explore a healing heritage that is historic to the human experience and yet, at the same time, very fresh. Universities, churches, libraries, hospitals, and health and human service agencies are exploring and building labyrinths.

The Mental Health Center of Madison County (MHCMC) in Huntsville, Alabama, considered installing a labyrinth for several years. In 2006, the Jane K. Lowe Charitable Foundation granted $20,230 to the MHCMC to construct a 60-foot outdoor labyrinth on its campus. It is an 11-circuit Chartres labyrinth with the traditional six-petal rose design at the center. The Chartres labyrinth pattern is based on the labyrinth in the Chartres Cathedral in France. It is perhaps the world's best-known labyrinth because of its elaborate layout.

Our labyrinth's path is made of sod with the edges lined with stone pavers (figure 1). The surrounding landscaping incorporates magnolias, hydrangeas, hollies, rosemary, and azaleas, all in a palette of green and white (figure 2). This past May, the MHCMC held a Lighting of the Labyrinth Ceremony to dedicate it to the community (figure 3). According to one source, no other healthcare facilities in Alabama have labyrinths.2

Figure 1. The MHCMC's labyrinth is made of sod and stone pavers. Photographer: Laura Densford

Figure 2. The MHCMC's labyrinth is surrounded by landscaping to create a calm and peaceful environment. Photographer: Laura Densford

Figure 3. The MHCMC's Lighting of the Labyrinth Ceremony was on May 17. Photographer: Lisa Post

Marilyn Lands, a therapist at MHCMC who has worked extensively to promote therapeutic uses of the labyrinth, states, “Mental health clients cite the labyrinth as a major factor in their recovery. The seriously mentally ill and children and adolescents are most receptive to the transforming power of the labyrinth. Mental health professionals have concluded that experiential and multisensory activities can have far more of an impact than traditional talk therapy for many clients. The labyrinth has proved especially effective when working through grief and loss, post-traumatic stress disorder, sexual abuse, and substance abuse.” It also could be therapeutic for those suffering from physical illnesses or working through any life-transition issue. Because of the increased interest in labyrinths, multiple research studies are being conducted on their effectiveness.

The MHCMC offers free quarterly workshops (open to the public) that provide an overview of labyrinths, including their history, design, and uses. Other workshops provide clinical training to therapists and other mental health professionals on labyrinths' therapeutic uses.

The MHCMC hopes to be recognized as “Your Campus for Change” and has been working toward developing innovative programs and activities to enhance clients' recovery efforts and overall well-being. The MHCMC developed a challenge ropes course for client confidence and skill building that is also available to area corporations and other agencies for team-building and leadership training. Our labyrinth is a natural extension of our vision to create an environment where clients can find creative counseling techniques and a safe environment for healing and transformation.