Contributed by Peter Wohl & Ray Lindsey
April 2006, a group of adolescents in an Augusta, ME middle school, who have been identified with serious behavior problems, enter a new treatment program. Before the class even begins, they are running around, screaming, hitting one another and throwing things. Ten weeks later the same group of youths stands silently in a single line, before a hushed gymnasium of school officials, family and friends. Following the direction of their Sensei, they bow and begin to demonstrate both the physical skills and the knowledge they have acquired. The treatment they have begun is a program called MAATI, the Martial Arts Adolescent Treatment Intervention.
In 2001, an Adolescent Drug Court Team in Augusta, ME that was struggling to find effective ways to intervene with addicted and seriously behaviorally disturbed adolescents. The frustration that team was experiencing is not unusual, since in spite of the seriousness of our national epidemics of addiction, mental illness and criminal behavior, there is a lack of interventions that are effective in assisting young people who are experiencing the catastrophic consequences of these disorders in an efficient and cost effective manner. It was in response to that teamšs sincere effort to find new tools to support its work, that the MAATI concept was developed.
Traditional martial art training inherently required cognitive, emotional and behavioral change along with the execution of physical technique. To provide an even more effective intervention MAATI was designed to enhance and augment these aspects making them explicit. However, accomplishing significant behavior changes in adolescents with mental health issues; co-occurring disorders (substance use and mental illness); anger problems; overt defiance towards authority (including Oppositional-Defiant Disorder and Conduct Disorder) ultimately required far more than placing the young person in a community-based karate class.
The MAATI program evolved to become a martial arts-based program designed to replace and/or augment mental health, correctional and substance abuse treatment and prevention interventions with "at risk" adolescents. MAATI became a true therapeutic intervention, which incorporates the elements associated with verbally implemented Cognitive-Behavioral Therapies (CBT). In MAATI the martial arts class and the execution of physical techniques provide an in vivo environment for the implementation of treatment plan goals. In this respect MAATI, like dance movement therapy (DMT) and some adventure based programs, it is a kinetically-based intervention that incorporates specific therapeutically focused activities.
Contemporary evidence-based treatment practices for motivation enhancement and cognitive and behavioral change have been applied throughout MAATI. Each class includes a both physical martial arts practice and a group therapeutic discussion led by a therapist/counselor who co-leads the program. This time most often focuses on discussion of stories, read by the therapist, which have been developed for MAATI. These stories, resembling traditional Asian martial arts tales, European folktales and Native American stories incorporate questions designed to engage students in making changes in negative cognitive schema and core values.
The experience with the program has shown that these sessions have a strong nurturing quality and the adolescents become very intimately engaged. MAATI founder and counselor Peter Wohl hypothesizes that often these youths have not had the opportunity to experience adults who provide nurturance, making this portion of the intervention extremely powerful. In addition, MAATI students learn, discuss and are encouraged to act in accord with a specially developed Code of Budo (Warrior Code). This Code, also specially developed for MAATI, emphasizes non-violence and strong pro-social values, which have been lacking in the students development.
MAATI classes also expose students to mindfulness meditation, with brief meditative periods preceding practice and integrated into the therapeutic discussion period. In fact, mindfulness is one of the skills that students are taught to help manage anger and other emotional states that may result in problematic behaviors. The result is that MAATI is a strong program for cognitive and behavior change which is in part taught in a kinetic context that is both appealing to adolescents and offers continuous physical challenges.
MAATI is run by the Augusta Institute for Innovations in Recovery. The chairman of the Institutešs Board of Directors, Roger Pomerleau, believes that this is such a powerful transformational tool that it should be implemented internationally. "The world so badly needs interventions that teach both positive values and pro-social ways of behaving to our youths. No one program can hope to do that for everyone, but MAATI holds promise for improving the lives of thousands of young people."