Over the last year or so I have been doing some thinking about those experiencing ongoing trauma. We talk of PTSD, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, as a set of symptoms experienced after a traumatic event or time. But some people continue to live in ongoing trauma. I’m reading James Fergusson’s The World’s Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia. Early in the book, he talks of seeing “Sister Mary, a warm-hearted big-bosomed Ugandan in combat fatigues, dispensing medicines from a table in the ruins of the villa’s kitchen.” (p. 45). Sister Mary explains that there are two medical problems she sees. The one she treats most often is diarrhea. But, she says, the other problem she could not treat,
The people here are stressed, she explained. They are traumatized. They do not know where to turn.
You talk a lot in the West about PTSD-Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder…but for these people there is no “post”. The trauma never ends.
What can people do when trauma isn’t post? Do they have to wait until the traumatic experience is in the past in order to deal with it? What can we do for others who remain in precarious and life-threatening situations? A friend raised this question when working with a group of refugees in a UN temporary camp. Some of the suggestions that were given this friend
1. Helping refugees find some way to hang on to small measures of empowerment: set up classes for children, build huts for those who are just arriving, develop “positions” for adults to fill so the camp runs smoothly and has a modicum of safety.
2. Reinstate religious and cultural traditions where possible
3. Practice corporate lament along with other worship activities
4. Allow people to tell as much story as they wish, whether by voice or artistic rendering
Notice that these are finding ways to cope by (a) making the moment better and (b) bearing witness, even if they can do nothing about the crisis. When a person feels some level of ability to respond to a difficult situation, that person often experiences less trauma than those who are unable to express any agency. Further, when they feel that they matter to others (someone listened to whatever they had to say), they tend to have less long-lasting PTSD symptoms.