Shrinking Disaster – psychologists cross borders to treat disaster, war victims

Shrinking Disaster – psychologists cross borders to treat disaster, war victims – Brief Article

Todd Sloan

Newspapers and magazines often cover natural disasters and war, but little attention is paid to the poverty-stricken and emotionally devastated survivors. Finally, victims of such trauma have begun to receive treatment from Global Community Psychologists, a group of Americans who have come together to address international mental health crises.

Last year, dozens of the group’s psychologists crossed borders and risked dangerous conditions for little or no compensation to help repair villagers’ lives. And what’s almost more noteworthy than their effort is their innovative approach.

GCP therapists see this kind of trauma as a communal experience, especially for those living in tight-knit social structures. So instead of treating victims with a traditional psychiatric approach–interpreting their symptoms medically and treating them in isolation from their causes–they mobilize existing cultural resources, such as councils of elders, and employ group therapy techniques, such as storytelling and conflict resolution. But it’s never easy.

Colleagues Ervin Staub, Ph.D., and Laurie Pearlman, Ph.D., visited Rwanda twice in 1999 to support these indigenous healing processes. “So many people had all their families killed, and they themselves barely survived,” said Staub, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of The Roots of Evil: Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence (Cambridge University Press, 1992). He said that to help people heal from their wounds requires communicating that the magnitude of their suffering is somehow not beyond your understanding.

“This was the only time in my life that I told people in a work setting that I am a `child survivor’ of the Holocaust,” Staub said. “But it is not a requirement that one has also suffered this way. The requirement is empathy and caring.”

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