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 CNS Story:

TSUNAMI-TRAUMA Feb-25-2005 (510 words) xxxi

Social networks help tsunami survivors recover from trauma

By Stephen Steele
Catholic News Service

JAKARTA, Indonesia (CNS) -- Strong social networks will be more important in helping tsunami survivors recover from their emotional distress than teams of professional psychologists, said the head of a trauma counseling unit in Indonesia.

Bhava Poudyal, a clinical psychologist for the International Catholic Migration Commission, said that in the cultural context of Indonesia and for most Asian cultures affected by the tsunamis the Western concept of psychoanalysis would not be effective.

"In disaster situations like this, it is more important that people's social needs are met first, things like food, water, shelter. Once those needs are met, the people tend to move on," Poudyal told Catholic News Service in early February.

Families and the extended family tend to take care of their own, he said. Neighbors often will take in orphaned children without assistance from the government.

"The concept of trauma is a concept of the West. People in the East have their own cultural mechanisms to deal with trauma. There is a strong social support network in non-Western societies that has enabled these cultures to survive for centuries," he said.

He said that in Aceh, commission counselors found a narrow group that needed counseling and an even narrower group that needed psychiatric care or medication.

"In most disasters, we find that 50 percent suffer from psychological distress, which they rebound from quite quickly. Of that group, 5 (percent)-10 percent will suffer from a psychological disorder that requires more long-term care. This appears to be the case in Aceh," he said.

Poudyal said Indonesia's Aceh province, near the epicenter of the late-December earthquake and tsunamis that killed more than 200,000 people in the Indian Ocean region, presented a complicated challenge to trauma counselors because of an ongoing conflict between the military and rebel groups that resulted in decades of human rights abuses.

"In Aceh, death is already ingrained. People expect the worst to happen," he said.

Poudyal said the commission is working with other nongovernmental organizations to quickly develop activities, such as income-generating projects, to help people regain some sense of their lives. The lack of activities in the region could exacerbate the distress survivors feel, he said.

"We're telling them that what they are experiencing is normal and giving them advice on what they can do to help themselves through it, which is engage in normal activities," he said.

"Activities such as the income-generating programs give them that sense of normalcy and move them beyond counseling. It gives them a sense of structure and control," he said.

After martial law was declared in May 2003, the commission was one of the few nongovernmental organizations that remained in Aceh, operating a program for survivors of torture.

After the tsunami, "we spent the first few days looking for our staff," said Charles Davy, the commission's regional director for Indonesia and East Timor.

All staff survived but "some lost their families and houses and weren't ready to go back to work," he said.

"Our staff found five bodies in our office," said Davy.


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