There’s a right way to counsel Marawi trauma victims
A team led by clinical psychologist Dr. Ma. Lourdes “Honey” Carandang held a seminar-orientation on trauma counseling for more than 100 Marawi-bound reserve officers of the Philippine military, who volunteered to help soldiers and civilian evacuees deal with trauma stemming from the Mindanao conflict.
Carandang’s Mindfulness, Love and Compassion (MLAC) team held the two-day seminar in V. Luna Hospital and Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City at the request of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Reserve Command last July.
This was two months after the Marawi conflict began. San Miguel Foundation Inc. sponsored the seminar.
Reserve officers are mostly civilian professionals whose assistance is necessary for the well-being of soldiers.
The 111 participants included medical doctors, psychiatrists, nurses, oncologists, medical technicians, chaplains, lawyers and academicians. Also present that time were a number of ranking military officers, Carandang told Lifestyle.
The psychologist explained it is possible those earlier sent to provide psychological relief to battle-scarred individuals either fighting the war or fleeing were “not properly equipped” to do so.
She pointed to the protocol provided under the standard Critical Incident Stress Debriefing normally observed by authorities who talk to survivors of kidnappings, hostage incidents and the like.
Carandang said the practice has already been “discredited by the United Nations,” but is still being observed in many areas, including the Philippines.
“The technique, commonly known as debriefing, can do more harm than good, especially if the one doing the debriefing does not fully understand what went on. They ask the survivors what happened, make these survivors relive their story, and then leave. Debriefing opens wounds, but does nothing to care for the wounds,” she noted.
The two-day event, dubbed “Training on Trauma Counseling, Mindfulness and Self-Care,” initially discussed the nature of trauma, and allowed the reservist-participants to recognize the personal traumas they experienced themselves.
“Trauma affects the body, mind and emotions. Before a person can help, he has to first go through what the people he would help have to go through. The workshop made the reservists aware of their personal traumas first,” the psychologist said.
Only after dealing with personal trauma can a reservist be equipped to guide others, she added. “Otherwise, you might project your anger and hostility because you haven’t dealt with your own trauma.”
Carandang noted how members of nongovernment organizations who volunteer in similar situations end up agitating communities they were supposed to help.
Carandang cited three “elements” of trauma that reservists were advised to recognize, including hyper-vigilance, intrusions and numbness.
Hyper-vigilance refers to the tendency of the mind and body to be “constantly on red alert, natatakot agad. Eventually, this constant state can cause illness because a person is not relaxed.”
Intrusions could include nightmares and indiscriminate flashbacks of images that remind a person of the trauma.
“It could be something as random as an image seen on television, especially if you’ve been to the battlefield,” Carandang explained.
Numbness or constriction happens when trauma sets in and a person does tasks on autopilot mode. “You can function but you are like a robot with a hole in your heart,” the psychologist said.
Carandang said persons undergoing a traumatic experience have natural protective mechanisms that allow them to tolerate the pain. However, these mechanisms like denial “should not be a permanent stage, but a temporary mechanism. Denial is only to make the intolerable pain more tolerable in the meantime so that you survive.”
Many people experiencing trauma might need some prodding to help them realize what is going on.
“Even questions like ‘Why am I like this? Why am I not thinking anything?’—all these are elements of trauma, a natural reaction to an abnormal situation. To know that you are thinking this way is already part of healing,” Carandang said.
Reservists who attended the MLAC seminar were also oriented about the three stages of recovery following trauma.
First would be the renewed feeling of physical and psychological/emotional safety.
Carandang said this might be difficult to achieve especially if the evacuee or soldier remains in or is near the combat zone.
“There is a need to go to a safer area like Cagayan de Oro or Iligan City. But safety also involves a psychological net, that people will not judge you for feeling bad or sad. This happens when you can freely express your emotion,” she explained.
The second stage of recovery occurs when a person who experienced trauma is already able to tell his or her story to a person who can listen and accept the story as it is told.
There are instances when the one who underwent trauma is blamed for what happened. “In a case of rape, for example, the one who listens could ask, ‘Eh bakit kasi ganoon ang suot mo? There should be no questions like those.”
Recovery is hastened when the person in trauma has a solid support system. “When we do recovery, we make sure to create a caring community. And recovery does not happen in the same way for everyone. There are different stages of development for example, for children, adolescents and adults,” the psychologist added.
Carandang stressed that healing is based on mindfulness. Most persons who experience trauma respond well to expressive arts therapy where they make drawings to tell what happened instead of using words.
“There is also music and movement. If their deep emotional state makes it difficult to express the story, they can listen to music and song. Art and mindfulness exercises also help,” she said.
The Mindfulness, Love and Compassion (MLAC) team led by Dr. Honey Carandang and Dr. Joanna Herrera will hold “A Day of Mindfulness, Compassion and Gratitude” forum on Aug. 26, 8 a.m.-4 p.m., in Miriam College, Katipunan Avenue, Quezon City. Call 0917-5019583 or 5732975. E-mail email@example.com.
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