The nature of the human spirit is resilient and strong; we thrive for survival against all odds. ‘I couldn’t possibly describe [PTSD] as an illness. All my research, all my years of clinical experience, had led me to believe it was a survival tool: perhaps our ultimate survival tool’ (Turnbull, 2011).
Trauma impacts our mind, body and spirit; it invades our internal and external world. Critical incidents, whether man-made or natural disasters, are becoming more prevalent and assiduous, creating a climate of fear. This fear creates a societal trauma spilt, between those becoming more exclusive or inclusive towards our fellow human beings. The core principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence are more necessary than ever. To heal from trauma, we need a supportive trauma-informed community. As Martin Luther King reflects, ‘we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality … whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly’ (Ramalingham, 2013, p. xi). I strongly believe healing communities and countries suffering from trauma will lead to a more cohesive, inclusive and peaceful world.
There is the light and dark side of the coin in aid work: the exposure to trauma, and the joy of life. One image that stays with me is ‘the tree of life’. An aid worker in the Ebola clinic in Sierra Leone painted an image of a large tree trunk, and as the children, who had survived Ebola, left the clinic they would paint their hands and leave their handprint, creating leaves on the tree that represent survival: ‘the survival tree’! When we recover from trauma we can dance freely. As the tree that sways freely in the breeze, we all have the right to breathe the air of freedom.
Much has been written about ‘post-traumatic growth’ (Joseph, 2011), where individuals who survive trauma become stronger, more resilient and turn the negative experience into something positive to help heal others. A great example of this is the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) based in Yangon, Myanmar, which has trained former political prisoners in counselling to offer psychosocial support to other political prisoners (Michaels, 2014).
My experience of PTSD, over 20 years ago, took me on a journey where I transitioned from working in advertising to becoming a trauma specialist therapist, trainer, speaker and writer. I wanted to use my experience to help others and prevent individuals from suffering in silence for years.
Findings from the UNHRC mental health guidelines noted: ‘Approximately one-third also indicated some unexpected benefits associated with stress exposure during the course of humanitarian work, including realising they are stronger than they thought, feeling closer to others, deriving more enjoyment from work, and developing stronger religious faith’ (UNHRC, 2013, p. 80).
We need to embed psychosocial practices into an organisation’s culture. Trauma exposure is a foreseeable risk, and there is sufficient research to confirm that the impact of trauma exposure can have a detrimental impact on an individual’s mental health, including risk of burnout, acute stress and traumatic stress.
The material in my book, Psychosocial Support for Humanitarian Aid Workers, aims to provide guidance to organisations and individuals, and hopefully encourage consistent good quality psychosocial support within the humanitarian aid sector. Let’s lead by example, let’s be at the forefront of good psychosocial and trauma care and let’s ensure that organisations and individuals are competently trauma-informed.
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