Context is Key: Counseling Torture Survivors in Sub-Saharan Africa

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

It is increasingly important for counselors to consider many factors beyond past trauma when working with survivors of torture in sub-Saharan Africa. A new paper conveying these findings was published today in Torture Journal, titled “Towards a Contextually Appropriate Framework to Guide Counseling of Torture Survivors in Sub-Saharan Africa,” written by Craig Higson-Smith, CVT research director, and Gillian Eagle, Ph.D., professor, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

The authors interviewed 15 counselors working in torture rehabilitation centers in three countries in the region, as well as 14 survivors who were clients at those centers. (Note that these individuals were not former CVT clients or staff.) The authors also conducted in-depth analysis of a random sample of 85 survivor case files, with clients whose home countries included Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and others.

The research surfaced a number of important themes. Trauma exposure work, which involves helping clients integrate past traumatic memories, did emerge as a central theme. The findings suggest, however, that interventions that strengthen families, facilitate healthy grieving and help survivors cope in the face of ongoing danger and seemingly overwhelming daily stressors are also critically important.

It is the complexity of clients’ experiences that makes these considerations so important. For example, most of these survivors lived through deeply traumatic experiences in addition to torture: nearly half the clients had suffered the death of a loved one, and 85 percent of those losses were violent. In addition, most of the clients were living in displacement or other vulnerable situations which had enormous impact on their daily living. “Therapeutic interventions focused solely on past trauma may be experienced as less helpful by clients who need assistance in dealing with immediate problems with important consequences for their survival,” the authors wrote.

By drawing on the experiences of the actual clients and amplifying the voices of experienced local counselors, the authors hope to promote a pragmatic and contextualized approach to torture rehabilitation that better meets the needs of torture survivors in sub-Saharan Africa.

Download the full paper here at Torture Journal.

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