Mental Health During/After Conflict?

Going through extraordinarily stressful events more often than not leads to lasting emotional and psychological trauma. Trauma, simply described as “A person’s stressful experience of a situation”, can fundamentally change not only victims’ way of life but also their psychological outlook. Some primary causes of trauma include rape, domestic violence, natural disasters, severe illness or injury, the death of a loved one, or experiencing/witnessing an act of violence. Even if the immediate source of the trauma is eliminated, time does not necessarily heal all wounds and so post-trauma
stress is quite common. It can manifest in several ways;

  • Recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the event, including images, thoughts or
  • Acting or feeling as if the traumatic event were recurring in the form of flashbacks
  • Intense psychological distress at exposure to cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of
    the traumatic event.

Widespread conflict within a region, as is being witnessed in Cameroon at present, brings with it plenty of consequences; the impact on the mental health of the civilian population is one of the more significant ones. It is, however, essential to note that trauma will always be individual, and never is one person’s experience the same as the others even when the situation was/is the same.
Prevalence rates of post-trauma stress may differ due to:

  • Degree of trauma experienced
  • Personal response to the stress of the offending situation
  • Demographics of the victims (women, children, the elderly and disabled are affected more)
  • Availability of physical and emotional support.

Victims of violence often feel humiliated, vulnerable, helpless, and that their lives are out of control.Providing support for victims in such situations to start the healing process and deal with the aftermath is especially crucial because frequently the perpetrators still live close to victims, thereby providing constant reminders of the past, as well as the threat of further incidents.

With conflict remaining an unfortunately everyday reality for many, techniques have emerged to help trauma victims interpret and heal from their experience. Many argue that trauma will not go away unless it is actively confronted, and this was witnessed during South Africa’s Truth, and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), where the legacy of violent conflict was dealt with through reliving the events of apartheid, and this model was also used during the national trials held in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. However, trauma healing often requires long-term support with the focus being on the victim, and truth commissions on their own cannot provide this. Besides, resources are often in short supply, limiting the degree to which follow-up services are available.

Local initiatives often seem better able to promote healing, and in developing countries, the use of cultural and religious coping strategies is especially frequent. In recent times there has been a push that has seen a significant expansion in programs designed to do just this. An initiative by HOPE Advocates in Cameroon labelled Healing Invisible Wounds intends to reach 50 women and girls who have experienced trauma due to the prevailing conditions and provide them with an opportunity to heal from the experience. As the name of the project suggests, the goal is to heal invisible wounds and promote mental health and psychosocial support for the targeted group
through trauma healing sessions. Studies show that when people go through traumatic experiences and share their experiences with
others, their health improves. Although talking about a stressful event can temporarily arouse people, it calms them in the long run. Social support systems are the social network’s provision of psychological and material resources intended to benefit an individual’s capacity to cope with stress. Social support comes in the form of family, friends, colleagues, group therapy sessions, trauma healing initiatives and can take many ways including:

  • Structural support – The size and extent of the individual’s social network, frequency of social
  • Functional support – Behavior that foster feelings of comfort leading the person to believe that
    s/he is loved, respected, and cared for by others
  • Instrumental/ material support – Good and services that help solve practical problems, and
  • Informational/cognitive support – Provision of relevant information intended to help individuals
    cope with current difficulties, understand the crisis and adjust to the changes that have occurred).

There is always the threat of trauma-induced social divisions forming based on myths and misinformation, and left unaddressed this can lead to generational trauma. Healing can prevent future violence and facilitate reconciliation when people with all sorts of differences come to see the humanity of one another, accept each other and see the possibility of a constructive relationship. Based in Buea, the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa is attempting to address this, starting with the youth in hopes of securing a better future for the society. Their initiative, The Role of Youth in Peacebuilding is a two-month project that targets the population in the areas
most affected by the ongoing conflict. It is expected to increase the knowledge of youths and their role in building peace within their communities. The project intends to engage youth leaders in peacebuilding advocacy through messages, radio programs, workshops and focused discussions of
de-radicalization and local skills for self-empowerment.

The goal of trauma healing is to give victims a feeling that they have control over their lives again. If the victims feel safe, acknowledged and reconnected with their surroundings and their lives, the healing process can be termed as successful.

Article by: Kendi Gikunda