Our trauma support for war survivors during COVID-19

Part 1 of a short series on trauma counseling

The communities of northern Uganda have greatly suffered from two decades of armed conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan government, leading to massive needs for psychosocial support to deal with deep-rooted war trauma. A major part of GRG’s work is supporting people with recognizing and understanding the links between traumatic experiences and emotional and physical symptoms. This work is particularly important in the wake of COVID-19, whereby many individuals may not easily understand the link between the seemingly overt impacts of COVID-19 stresses with the more covert emotional effects afterwards. The psychological toll on individuals living in northern Uganda during COVID-19 is complex; therefore GRG is preparing to support our communities with managing the aftermath by accounting for these complexities.

GRG responded to the trauma needs of vulnerable communities in February 2020, before the pandemic hit, by expanding into remote Madi Opei sub-county on the Uganda-South Sudan border. The results of the assessment were very enlightening, revealing a big need for psychosocial support spanning across many areas, and highlighting the group members’ eagerness to become involved with the project. “I have always had difficulties in dealing with traumatic experiences in my life, because I did not know that talking to someone can be a form of healing.  I am hopeful that GRG’s psycho-social intervention will change many lives in this community,” an interviewee stated.

Since the LRA left in 2007, this region has experienced very limited international aid by different NGOs due to its remoteness, both in terms of livelihoods and psychosocial trauma support. The sub-county is in the far north of Uganda, bordering South Sudan and within proximity of the Palabek Refugee Settlement, which hosts more than 50,000 refugees from South Sudan. This has resulted in many NGO and governmental assistance programs directing their support towards the refugee population, hereby excluding the host communities in Madi Opei.

This exclusion has meant that many community members continue to be affected by unaddressed, lingering war-time trauma. This not only impacts the emotional stability of individuals, but also risks the physical safety of themselves and those around them. In post-conflict Ugandan communities, the limited access to mental health care inevitably leads to conflict and, in some cases, the inability to care for their dependents. Thus, GRG recognised the acute need for emotional and psychological support within these communities.

Working with the local government Community Development Officer and local leaders, GRG was able to establish five new groups of 40 members each. Upon group formation, we then conducted a baseline psychological trauma assessment to understand the type and severity of the issues and trauma affecting the group members and the wider community. This took place over a period of three weeks with our field staff travelling to the remote communities, multiple days a week, to conduct the individual interviews.

Each assessment day ran for around four hours, allowing interviewees the space to talk freely about both past and present issues affecting their wellbeing and livelihoods, in a 1:1 context. In many cases, group members commented that they lack the time or ability to address past trauma in everyday life and would “appreciate someone listening to [their] problems’ and helping them ‘learn how to manage emotions.