I am a psychotherapist, specialized in psychotraumatology regarding mostly victims of war and torture. I was training myself, and working in post-conflict countries, especially Uganda, with the University of Konstanz and its NGO vivo International : I learned a lot from that team, from diagnosis to treatment of traumatized people suffering from mental health problems because of their traumatic events.
Later on, I focused my job in Italy with asylum seekers and refugees in different projects and reception centers. Green Light was my first experience of applying my job during an artistic workshop, an art-context, though...
When it comes to Green light, I think the psychological work was the same, with the individuals or group sessions, but the different part was the setting and the possibility also for me to see the interaction between participants, independently from the sessions. They spent a lot of time together, and this was a powerful stimulus to handle with relations, and to gain language to communicate with each other. For some migrant I met, I also witnessed the artistic expressions of traumatic experiences we processed in the psychological sessions, as art gave them the right way of expression: art gave voice to trauma, and this is a very important part of healing because trauma makes the victims silent, and silence never helps the victims as it keeps them stuck in the past.
I think asylum seekers find themselves in a LIMBO, and this condition can affect their well-being. Their identity has been torn, most of the times suddenly and in a traumatic way, and for an indefinite time their life is like suspended: they wait for documents, wait for an accommodation, wait for the possibility of a new life. This limbo can breed activation or can breed paralysis: I think the most vulnerable people could be pushed to paralysis, if they experience racism or negative social relations in this phase. The asylum system should provide services and opportunities that aim to empower the personal resources of asylum seekers: then it’s up to each of them to take this opportunities for the future, choosing activation instead of paralysis.
In my job it’s very frequent to focus on the reactivation of personal resources so that the person can avoid psychological-social-mental paralysis, and increase his/her own well-being.
I think both, work and the establishment of a social network can prevent asylum seekers from paralysis, but avoiding isolation needs enough social abilities by the individual. In traumatized people these abilities are often reduced, because a part of the post-traumatic symptoms leads to emotional numbing. Then people learn to avoid situations that can reactivate bad memories, and often it means they learn to avoid people. They learn to isolate themselves: this is a defense (try to be), but instead of preserving the possibility of psychological symptoms, it only contributes to maintain them. It’s a circle.
Trauma is related to memory, and memory is related to the ability of narration. My approach is called Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET) and focuses on the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorders through narration of all the life events, re-experiencing emotions, cognitions and sensory elements associated with them: it aims to an integrated and coherent narration and to the habituation that leads to a reduction of the strong emotional responses connected to trauma.
I agree, that therapy and possibility of healing is a matter of relation, I would say it is ALSO a matter of relation: but language and clear communication comes first. This is why in my job I need translators that are also trained in basic principles of psychotraumatology (usually by me) and that can fit with the psychological setting, being aware that they become literally my voice and the voice of the patient.
In Green Light I could have psychological sessions only with participants who could speak English enough (or Italian), I did not have sessions with those I could not communicate with, because it would not fit into the approach of NET.
Getting in contact with asylum seekers means facing also their frustration and negative feelings about their condition. Helpers should be aware that emotional content of refugees can be hard to bear, and also could activate their own emotional parts, like a mirror. It’s very frequent that helpers find themselves in the position of the savior, as refugees are usually in the position of victims. The “drama triangle” of Karpman is a model that explain the interaction between the roles of Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer: the same person can shift from a role to another during an interaction with another person.
I think this model can fit well with workers/helpers who are involved with refugees: it’s very easy to be involved in this triangle, because of the nature of the victim-role of refugees, but it’s also very easy for helpers to become victims themselves, or even persecutors. In the same way, refugees can shift from victims to persecutors and to rescuer related to helpers. This is why the most important thing is being aware of our emotional position all the time: I think it means getting out of this drama, of this emotional trap. Helping refugees can lead to a strong emotional swing, ex. from “I want to save them all!” to “I don’t bear them anymore!”: both are dangerous emotional positions, I think the best way is trying all the time to place ourselves in the middle...
by Elisa Danese