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Monday, 17 September 2012

Trauma in Northern Ireland

My copy of Therapy Today, the magazine of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), arrived at the weekend. Inside there was an interview with Helena Stuart, a psychotherapist at The Wave Trauma Centre in Belfast.

In her interview Helena says that despite the fragile peace in Northern Ireland there is still a big need for trauma counselling. It is, after-all, in the aftermath of conflict, during times of peace, when we are often most vulnerable to the affects of trauma; when we cease coping with the crisis around us and begin processing, experiencing and reliving the traumatic events we have survived. 

One recent study found that the suicide rate amongst middle-aged men in Northern Ireland has doubled since the Good Friday agreement, further evidence of the difficulties many have coping with the transition to peace. These men grew up when violence in Northern Ireland was at its height and its made them susceptible to mental health problems in later life.

Helena says that as life in Northern Ireland returns to something like normality the symptoms of trauma begin to appear but not just in those directly affected. She says the effects of trauma are 'reverberating down the generations', affecting adolescents and children aware of but unable to talk about the unspeakable trauma their families have experienced. 

Reading the interview I was reminded of a visit I made in 1992 to Belfast's Museum and Art Gallery on the edge of the Botanical Gardens. I was a philosophy and politics student at Queen's University at the time. There was an exhibition of children's paintings. Those painted by the youngest children, only four or five years old, featured big yellow suns and bright red tractors; but as the children aged the colours became darker, the scenes increasingly bleak. Teenagers painted scenes of violence with military helicopters overhead.

Helena works creatively with her clients, they paint and use sand play to help symbolise the horror they have experienced. She says, "The symbols of healing appear in the sandbox even when the person themselves hasn't found healing yet. The potential is there and we always grow towards potential'.

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