5 issues practitioners should be aware of when working with survivors of war, torture, crimes against humanity and genocide

Our thanks to Mbalu Lumor, Senior Manager, Programs and Newcomer Services at the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture (CCVT) for providing her insights.

1. It’s very likely that you have already met someone who has experienced torture, war, genocide or crime against humanity

If you live or practice in a metropolitan area, there’s a good chance that you have already encountered a survivor of war, torture, genocide or a crime against humanity.

Torture is an ancient practice that has existed for years, and, according to Amnesty International, is practiced in over 140 countries. Furthermore, according to Global Conflict Tracker, there are currently 27 ongoing conflicts worldwide.

2. What is Trauma?

In the context of Western knowledge and education, trauma “is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster

And in CCVT’s many years of experience, the organization sees “trauma” as a person's reaction or response to an injury. The state and organized violent groups have inflicted pain and suffering on the individual - a normal reaction to a violent act that moves beyond the individual. It is a societal issue.

The state has not protected its citizens and they are forced to leave their countries and seek asylum and safety in various parts of the world, including Canada. Upon arrival to host countries such as Canada, it is important that survivors feel welcomed and have access to trauma informed care services to meet their unique needs.

3. The role of the community is essential in working with survivors of war, torture, crimes against humanity or genocide

Community is critical to the well being and the healing journey of a survivor.

CCVT’s community support model works from an integrated approach that complements both clinical intervention and the role of the community.

The CCVT’s community model is a holistic model that challenges how survivors are “pathologized” and referred to as needing “treatment”. Survivors are resilient and agents of their own recovery. To go back to CCVT’s definition of trauma - in the context of working with survivors, using “trauma” terminology implies that the individual is responsible for the response, rather than the broader systematic force caused by the state’s abuse of power.

This enables government and society in general to circumvent responsibility and liability. So CCVT works with various community partners, including volunteers who are the heart of the Centre to support survivors in their healing journey.

By working with the community, it becomes a societal issue in which everyone needs to be involved, for all of our wellness.

4. Torture and war affect more than just the individual

The impact of intergenerational trauma is massive.

Trauma from war or genocide affect not just the individual, family, or society living in an ongoing climate of war and conflict. Children are also impacted, and the injury continues to the next generation. We often forget about children and think they are young and might not recall.  In comparison to the adults, according to Dr. Marlinda Freire, children have no facility for differentiating what is normal, and as a result, can be more impacted than their parents or adults (War is not a Game, 2001)

5.  Self care is essential for Mental Health professionals

Trauma informed Care means not just caring about the service user, but also about caring for the service provider or practitioner. Proactively, policies, guidelines and reflective practices needs to be implemented on an ongoing basis to ensure both service user and provider are supported.

Service providers can often forget that they are part of the conversation. By working with a torture survivor, you will be impacted somehow. It's important for the individual, organization and society to be aware of the protective and risk factors to ensure the right supports are in place. We cannot perform meaningful work if we are not healthy.