HOW TO WORK WITH TRAUMA WITHOUT (RE-)TRAUMATIZING
There is an enormous need for advice during escape, on migration routes, in transit and also at the points of arrival. There are many questions: where can help be found at this moment; what are the possibilities to continue the journey; how can we arrive safely and finally fight successfully for a right to stay? At the same time, the people asking these questions have often had several traumatising experiences, which they carry on their shoulders.
Our networks try to provide accurate and accessible information and advice to people on the move. At the same time, these conversations are often also a moment of exchange. It is frequently necessary to talk about incidents where words are missing and there is a risk of wounds reopening.
At the Transborder Summercamp in France we met in a big group and created a workshop that was not a prepared lecture. We wanted to exchange experiences on how counselling can work without (re-)traumatisation and how we can use counselling as a self-empowering, empowering instrument. As some of the participants, we now tried in this text to summarize practical suggestions and reflections that have remained in our memories. We hope to make them accessible, without claiming to be exhaustive, to expand the possibilities for action and to whet the appetite for more.
There are many people who are able to process traumatic experiences because of their resilience without developing permanent symptoms. Having experienced something bad does not automatically mean that they need support. We often read the figure that two thirds of people manage to cope with the violence they have experienced. This means they do not develop long term symptoms, even though it does not exclude the possibility that symptoms appear in the first 4 to 6 weeks after the experience. Symptoms are forms or attempts of coping, always along the lines of what a person is currently capable of.
Most support is given by people on their way to each other among themselves. Except for experiences of violence that are taboo, which are not so easy to talk about because of fear how others react or because of feelings of shame. Sexualised violence is often such a taboo. However, there are also examples, such as the women’s self-defence villages in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Rwanda or other self-help structures, where this topic is not taboo. Often, only talking about the experience is taboo, not the fact that it happened itself. When I am sure of my own point of view, I can also name difficult issues that I have discussed with others in order to build a bridge.
Perhaps 2 % of those affected receive professional help, the majority of support is provided by their personal environment.
Activists/counsellors should always explain exactly who they are and from which perspective they make their offer (with which professional background, from which group and with which possibilities do they offer counselling, their own political motivation to fight for equal rights etc.), what they can offer, what they clearly cannot, and explain all kinds of other things as a framework, e.g. how much time I have now, the next day, next week. It’s worth doing this in peace and quiet and to say seemingly self-evident things several times, not only to say your own name and contact, but also to write it down or hand it out as a card etc. The certainty of the counsellor about what they are able to do also gives confidence and creates a more horizontal and honest level of conversation. At the end ask: if you know all this now, are you ready to talk to me and I will see what I can do for you? I would be happy if you are!
Not surprisingly, it is not the great methods that help, but rather a certain attitude of the person doing the counselling, which can convey hope as well as security. Hope that things can get better again, that healing and “arriving” is possible. In our opinion, the most important thing is that the person concerned feels welcome by the counsellor. For us “Welcome to Europe” has several meanings. It is about individually expressing one’s joy that a person has made it this far, that I say this as a representative of European civil society. And that I see it as my wish or even my obligation to stand by the person, that I find it shameful and scandalous when he or she experiences discrimination and lack of rights, and that we have to see if we can work together despite what makes us different.
This attitude of friendly welcoming should refer to everything that the person concerned brings with them, i.e. their strength and joie de vivre, their experiences and knowledge, but also their grief, powerlessness and helplessness, and also their anger, uncontrolled rage and all kinds of other, perhaps not necessarily sympathetic, coping mechanism that they do (self-medication with alcohol or illegalised drugs) or that come over them (outbursts of anger, panic attacks, not being able to stop crying etc.). It is also important to put the experience of the person into context and to make it clear that many other people have also experienced this injustice and that there was clearly one or more violation of their rights, i.e. that it is others who have acted “illegally” and not them who have sought clandestine ways of seeking security.
The counsellors should of course also keep their own feelings in mind. Good counselling is not conceivable without at the same time consulting with others about what I am experiencing. When it comes to violations of personal boundaries, it happens quickly that supporters also go beyond their limits or notice their own limits too late. Without rooms for reflection with other counsellors, this is not the exception but the rule.
An important question is how much can and may be asked. In general, do not open locked boxes with injuries if you cannot handle them. It is perfectly okay to tell people in counselling settings, that they should report details only to a specially trained person, unless it is absolutely necessary to talk about something difficult for approaching an important situation. Such a case would be given if the person is about to be interviewed for asylum and the general security (right to stay and therefore access to protection and in the second step therapy) depends on it.
Then it is difficult to avoid bringing up traumatic topics. If we do bring them up, it is important to leave the choice of what is disclosed and what is not. “In the asylum interview itself it becomes important if you, as bad as it feels, could tell the bad experiences completely. It is your weapon; it is your story and you fight for your right to stay. Now here you don’t have to tell me everything, if it is too difficult for you – if you want to practice telling it, then do it, I am ready to listen.”
Curiosity is a bad companion at this point, but openness is more than important. It can be very important to be able to simply listen and bear together. It is often difficult for those affected to imagine that others can bear to hear something that they themselves may not think about. It can also be good to know when is the right time for this and when is the time to end a story. It is not important to know the life story of my counterpart in detail. If I notice that the person is reliving the story while telling it, then it is important to interrupt and to have enough time and to make offers that bring the person back to the here and now and to stay together for a while.
In our experience, difficult stories, if there is a real need to talk about them, can be addressed more easily with the appropriate attitude and security of the counsellors, if it is made clear that this is a technical part of the asylum preparation and an atmosphere of systematic or even technical questions and answers is created. It is important to sensitively observe how the person is doing when telling the story and to stop in difficult moments and not to keep on pushing to continue. Sentences like: “I would like to ask you if you have ever experienced torture, because I got such an impression from your previous stories. You don’t have to tell me the details, but it is very relevant for your interview and there (at the interview) you should tell as much detail as possible so that your chances of getting a secure status increase.” In this way, a difficult topic is addressed and opened, but at the same time it is limited and closed again. The person can then decide for themselves whether they want to report more about it or not. So it is always important to explain why a difficult information is so important to ask or to discuss and the appropriateness for the asylum procedure, i.e. the process of obtaining a safe status, and thus the best possible attempt to get protection, so that one does not have to return to that place where a terrible thing happened. Often in our experience, the usefulness of telling about trauma, and the telling itself, can help people to express it for the first time and can therefore also lead to relief.
In difficult situations, small gestures count: open the window, give a glass of water, talk about what helps others (going for a walk, playing football, being with friends, eating something sweet or sour, having a coffee, taking a shower, listening to music, etc).
Exercises and methods that you don’t know and also those that you don’t like yourself should not be taught to others. What can help is very individual. Offers can also be rejected and this must be clear. The best thing is, a person can choose between several ways and decide for themselves what they feel is best for them. From a psychiatric outpatient clinic it is said that a doctor wanted to make “the Inner Safe Place” method with a young refugee, but he thought that was stupid. She replied, “If you don’t cooperate here, you can leave, I can’t help you.” This often happens when supporters want to try something, they think is good for themselves, and the people concerned are not attracted and they evaluate this as “you are not getting involved”.
A possible technique in an asylum preparation, which avoids having to tell traumatic experiences, would be to explain the asylum system and the procedure to the person to be counselled (procedure, situation as well as the general questions) and also to name categories of “important” asylum-relevant topics in general, so that the person can recognize what is important to say in the interview without talking about it.
It is also important to tell the person that the traumatisation itself, the psychological state they may be in, is also relevant to asylum and that symptoms, medically/psychologically diagnosed illnesses, should be mentioned at the beginning of the interview so that there is at least a chance that their narrative is better understood and that the possible avoidance of bad memories, or the lack of possibility to remember, can be sorted out by the listeners.
In preparation for the asylum interview or court hearing, also talk about what happens afterwards. “I know this is going to be a really tough day for you, what can you do after that?” And to remember which are the methods to be anchored again in the here and now and prepare (for example, to plan who will go with you, who will wait outside or who can be called).
Images or metaphors can be helpful in conveying hope, for example: “Your life is not over because of sexualised violence. If you were a tree, a branch would have been cut off now. But the stump will heal, and when you get everything you need, many new branches will grow.” Or: “you know, a dunghill stinks, it’s almost unbearable to stand next to such a pile of shit. And yet sometimes the biggest pumpkins of all grow on that dung heap.”
Bad experiences are often much more powerful than the good ones and can repress them. Just as one drop of crude oil can poison a whole barrel of drinking water, a bad experience can cover up many good aspects of life. That is why it is important to research the good things together with others, so that the brain (thinking) does not only deal with the bad things that are so intrusive (thought carousel). For example, there is the exercise with the 3 stones in the pocket. For every good thing, no matter how small, I change one stone into the other pocket and then on and on.
This also applies to our own attitude: If we cannot see the small steps forward and cannot share the success stories of other survivors, then in the harsh reality of the struggles to move on, to arrive and to stay, it is very difficult to spread hope. It is important that we always keep our eyes on the successes, that we always make them great and appreciate them.
In the “Journeys back to the border”, those who returned were bearers of hope in this sense. With their presence alone, they convey that it is possible not only to survive, but also to grow with the experiences made while fleeing. This is not only true in the “Journeys Back”, it can work everywhere. By counselling in mixed teams including people with and without a migrant background, we show in a very practical way that it is possible to work together on an equal level, even with very different starting conditions.
Migrants are usually survival artists. This also has to be said and what has been achieved so far needs to be emphasized. Sentences like: “You have already made it this far, many others unfortunately have not,” help to recognize your own strength.
It is ideal to make consultations safe by choosing the place and setting of the consultation. If possible, privacy should be created and a stress-free situation. This is not always possible when people are found under very difficult conditions, such as homeless in transit, e.g. in Patras (Greece). If privacy cannot be created, it is better to discuss the other way round, in group consultations people’s rights are explained in general and procedures are explained. It is often the decision of individuals to tell their personal stories in such situations. Nevertheless, people should be made aware that this is not an ideal setting and, if possible, alternatives should be offered, such as telephone counselling at a later stage or contact with counsellors in the planned arrival locations.
Anyone who has experienced massive violence can also be considered a survivor, because many of them do not manage to surrender. The English term “survivor” is useful in this sense. Many also like to hear it when the fact how far they made it gets special appreciation: “Obviously you are a very strong person, even if you feel weak sometimes/right now”. When people say that they would never have made it without help, it is worth listing exactly who helped them and how, because gratitude is one of the most stabilizing feelings of all, along with being loved.
Counsellors can strengthen the self-healing powers of those affected even more by working with people to systematically collect everything they are good at, what they like to do, what could help and what has helped them before. If the counsellor knows about other people, she can also actively contribute things that have already helped others and offer them.
In support and counselling, as well as in joint actions, the family context should also be taken into account: What role does the person we are dealing with have in their family? Who does know what about whom, or perhaps should not know? Family is of some importance to most people. It can be a source of support but also a burden. Both can have an influence on those affected. Therefore, it is often helpful to address this topic with sufficient caution, but also openly, and: there are few areas where cultural imprinting is as powerful as within the family. It is important for us as counsellors to look beyond our own ideas and experiences and to try to understand how the other person’s family works.
In many cases it can be helpful to see that I am not alone. In anti-deportation struggles we have had good experience with group counselling sessions in which several people affected train together how to prevent deportations and also exchange their own strategies. Experiencing and passing on solidarity belongs in the same category as the feeling of being loved or the feeling of gratitude: it stabilizes immensely. That is why our activist consultations often end with the offer to help and to get active towards the counselled person, maybe in the future, when they feel better and are sure they want to become active themselves.
For the right to stay and freedom of movement!