Monday, July 9, 2012

Christian Psychology and Trauma Recovery Efforts

Trauma is a hot topic these days. We live in a world where we are aware of terrible traumas happening around the globe in real time. We hear and see tsunamis unfolding, towns being flooded when dikes are breached, mass shootings, bodies strewn about due to ethnic conflict, houses destroyed by errant bombs, and gender violence in almost every corner of the world. While humanitarian efforts to respond to the physical needs of those in trouble are not new, there is a recent push to have charity workers become “trauma informed” so they can also address spiritual and psychological distress.   

Trauma is a hot topic not just because we have more evidence of it happening in real time. It is hot because we have better information about the impact of violence and abuse on the human brain, on human interactions, and on the fabric of a society (Mollica, 2006).

Christian counselors, many of whom want to provide cups of cold water to the hurting masses, undoubtedly wish to use their skills to bring hope, healing and recovery to traumatized peoples around the world. But just where should they start? 

Start with the Basics
A counselor prepares for clinical work by ensuring basic competencies. The Christian counselor working with trauma must have a robust theology of suffering, a clear understanding of the nature of sin and the spiritual impact of being a victim of violence, abuse, and/or natural disasters. In addition, counselors need to evaluate their own theology of healing and hope for change. Is healing a process or an event? Can a healed person still evidence traumatic reactions? The counselor with a superficial understanding of sin and evil (and its real destruction on the human soul) or a simplistic view of healing of the soul may wound others with their good intentions.

Counselors prepare for international work by educating themselves to the best information regarding abuse, trauma, and the known impact on the human brain, body, and soul. Just as important as understanding best practices for trauma treatment (i.e., safety and stabilization, trauma work proper, and reconnection to the community), counselors also educate themselves about the region they intend to serve. They read widely to understand geopolitical influences, historical shaping events, values, and current nongovernmental efforts to care for victims.   

Add Listening Skills
Most counselors desire to be a healing agent in the lives of others. This requires exceptional listening skills in order to understand and connect with those we help. Sometimes we may forget some of these skills when working in international settings due to viewing the traumatized as poor, ignorant, and needing to be filled up with our wisdom. While base competencies include active listening skills, the effective trauma healer recognizes the need to learn the following information: cultural understandings of community, individual, family, emotion, strength, health, as well as how the particular community views the culture of the helper. If previous “helpers” have mistreated the population, it will be important to discover this and to make amends where possible. Further, effective counselors discover and utilize local strengths and resources rather than assume all help must come from outside the community.     

Preparatory Work
One of the main techniques of Christian psychology is the translation of one dialect (psychology, culture, etc.) into another (ethnocentric forms of Christianity) while maintaining the integrity of the Christian faith. Johnson (2007) suggests that translation work includes comprehending and evaluating both dialects (i.e., the material gleaned from listening activities) and then deciding which translation activity (i.e., transliteration, paraphrasing, translating with explanation, or substituting new “words” into an existing dialect) best addresses needs. 

Applying these strategies to international trauma work, one must comprehend how local ministry leaders understand the common symptoms of trauma before deciding to “educate” leaders about the nature of trauma. For example, a group of African pastors once spoke of raped women showing signs of dissociation and trauma as exhibiting the signs of demonic possession. When these women did not seem to benefit from prayer ministry, they admitted they were inclined to throw them out of the church. Rather than debate about the differences between demon possession and PTSD, an effective trauma helper recognizes the need to find links between the reality of spiritual warfare and human behavior. Time spent discovering that this African community views PTSD as evidence of internal weakness (as opposed to a Western view of PTSD as the result of an external event) might open the door to discuss the impact of various forms of evil on human functioning.  

Encourage Appropriate Storytelling
Once a counselor is well trained to understand the nature of trauma and the challenges and resources of a local community, what short-term interventions might be used to begin the healing process? Essential to the healing process is the act of storytelling. Telling the story of life before the trauma, the trauma itself, the impact on the person, as well as the story of survival/rebuilding forms the core of all trauma recovery work. Such work enables victims to regain their voice, sort through confusing and disorienting information, re-establish the God-imaging work of “naming” things as they are (Gen 2:19-20), and recall that their life story is not only that of trauma. However, not all storytelling is equally beneficial. Trauma healing coaches guide victims to tell their story in ways that (a) do not re-traumatize (e.g., overly focusing on the worst details of trauma), (b) include evidence of existing strengths and present safety from past trauma, and (c) help answer key questions (e.g., theodicy) without pretending that the answers invalidate future questions. 

Train up Local Facilitators
International trauma recovery work by outside counselors is, by definition, short-term missions. Long-term work is not economically sustainable nor does it provide expert help in the heart language of the traumatized population. For a fraction of the cost of sending a Western counselor for a few weeks to a developing nation, a number of local leaders can be trained to provide trauma healing interventions. This is best done by providing basic information about trauma to a wider audience, locating natural leaders (those who are seen as safe and politically neutral to most; who have a previous track record of caring for others), providing more intense training and intervention opportunities, and supporting these local facilitators with ongoing consultation using available technologies (e.g., SKYPE, web materials, discussion forums, support by cell phone, etc.).

Christian counselors have much to offer those suffering the impact of trauma. Their skills can be put to good use in order to train up local leaders to be effective facilitators of trauma recovery. Much of the work is that of learning about God’s people in a particular location and supporting agents of healing that already exist. The basic skills of listening and humility will support the work of training local leaders to help their own people re-tell their story within the grand narrative of the Gospel. 

Johnson, E.L. (2007). Foundations for soul care: A Christian psychology proposal. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Mollica, R.F. (2006). Healing invisible wounds: Paths to hope and recovery in a violent world. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 

Phil Monroe, PsyD
Biblical Seminary

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