Continuity from past to present
The Windhorse Project was first developed in 1981 in Boulder, Colorado, by Dr. Edward Podvoll and his colleagues, based on their work at The Naropa University. Prior to this, Dr. Podvoll was psychiatric director at several highly respected, long-term care psychiatric hospitals, including Chestnut Lodge and Austen Riggs. He observed the usefulness of in-patient settings but also saw how they could impede a person’s recovery. He realized that when someone was struggling with overwhelming experiences, recovery became more difficult if the person was in the company of others with similar problems.
Equally problematic was that being in the inpatient unit separated the person from his or her real, everyday environment. The hospital environment can seem a completely foreign place where the activities and responsibilities that a person normally finds meaningful are absent. The revolutionary approach of the founding Windhorse group was to act as an integrated team and to provide holistic care for a person with a mental disorder within his or her home and community. Recovery, rather than just maintenance and basic survival, then could be effectively pursued in a sane environment of learning and growth. The means of recovery – mindfulness of domestic details, the practice of truthful communication, and direct work with the cycles of extreme mind states – were soon discovered to bring out mental clarity. The original Windhorse group coined the term basic attendance for this set of clinical skills.
The founding Windhorse group created a nonprofit organization and therapeutic community called Maitri Psychological Services. Over the next six years, the group organized home and community-based clinical teams for people who suffered with severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression or were experiencing various severe life transitions. A group of clinicians, largely made up of graduates of The Naropa University, was organized by a team leader, an experienced student of Dr. Podvoll’s, to form an integrated team with the client as an active participant. The team schedule consisted of one to three, three-hour shifts per day. During these shifts a team clinician met with the client to do basic attendance, to help the client integrate body and mind while carrying out ordinary daily activities.
Each treatment team also included two staff housemates, who were supervised by the team leader. These housemates lived in the home with the client. The housemates were there to provide as normal and stable a household as possible and to provide a more continuous team presence at home. As part of the treatment, clients also had intensive individual psychotherapy, most often with Dr. Podvoll. The organizational hub of the treatment team was the home in which the client lived. This was a rented home, chosen and set up in a joint effort between the client and the team members. In this initial phase of the Windhorse model, the intensive therapeutic household evolved. Dr. Podvoll describes this in detail in his book, Recovering Sanity, Shambhala Publications, 2003; (previously published as The Seduction of Madness by HarperCollins, 1990).
In the early history of the Windhorse Project, the therapeutic group developed three core practices:
- Closely attending to domestic activities,
- Establishing healthy relationships, and
- Working with schedule to stabilize daily rhythms.
Maitri Psychological Services operated from 1981 to 1987. Throughout that time, Dr. Podvoll served as its Medical Director. In 1990 with Dr. Podvoll’s help, Charles Knapp created Windhorse Community Services (WCS) in Boulder, Colorado. Kathy Emery (a core member of the original group) and Eric Chapin eventually joined Knapp to make up the senior clinical group of WCS. In 1997, Knapp incorporated the organization. From 1989 to 2002, Jeffrey Fortuna (another core member of the original group) lived on the East Coast, where he established a Windhorse center in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and another center called Windhorse Associates, Inc., in Northampton, Massachusetts. Jeffrey Fortuna and Dr. Podvoll (who lived in a secluded retreat center in France from 1990 to 2002) both returned to Boulder to work with WCS in 2002. Dr. Podvoll published Recovering Sanity in 2003 through Shambhala Publications; this book was previously published as The Seduction of Madness by HarperCollins, 1990.
The Windhorse model continues to evolve based on its core practices. Most notably, we now tailor the original intensive therapeutic household model to suit the unique needs and budget of each client. We have worked with several hundred troubled people and their families in five centers over the last twenty-eight years. Many hundreds of people have participated in Windhorse trainings, in which we present clear curriculums supported by our publications and core resource materials. We have developed a variety of business models to support our clinical practice. Our approach is continually informed by the voices of recovering clients and their families and the exploration of contemplative practices and dialogue methods.
The Windhorse model has been adapted to in-home care with the elderly, children, and persons struggling with closed-head injuries, substance abuse, and a wide range of mental disorders and major life transitions. In principle, the model can be adapted to any life-disrupting situation in which a person simply wants to stay at home and recover. Windhorse therapeutic communities are thriving in several countries. An international network of Windhorse centers and practitioners is steadily growing as the interest in our approach continues to spread.