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Queen’s students help rebuild lives of Congo’s child soldiers
10 October 2011
Queen's University, Belfast
Two postgraduate students from Queen’s University have completed the first phase of a pioneering trip to assist in the treatment of psychological distress among child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Paul O’Callaghan and John McMullen spent the summer months in the heart of the vast African country providing psychological support and treatment to children who had suffered one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.
Paul O’Callaghan, formerly a secondary school teacher and now a third year student on the Doctorate in Educational, Child and Adolescent Psychology, said: “These children have been caught on both sides of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are, at the same time, both perpetrators and victims of the violence that still plagues this mineral-rich yet materially-poor country in central Africa.
“Many child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo are forcibly abducted and then ordered to commit heinous crimes. They are subjected to brutal (and even cannibalistic) rituals, hard labour, cruel training regimes and torture. As a result, many exhibit severe psychological and emotional distress.
“Most struggle to cope with the transition to ‘normal’ life and some are haunted at night by the faces of those they have killed. Our five-week group-based intervention taught relaxation and mental imagery techniques and encouraged the children through art and individual psychotherapy to deal in the present with the horrors of their past.
“Our study highlighted the fact that, far from being a ‘lost generation’ or ‘victims of a stolen childhood’, child soldiers have incredible inner strength and resilience. Simple psychological techniques can be of great assistance in reducing their intensely disturbing nightmares and emotional distress that some face on a daily or nightly basis.”
Due to the challenging nature of this project, the research team sought advice from Dr Alastair Black, Psychotherapist and Head of Psychological Therapies at Futures (NI), who has significant experience working with children suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression. Dr Ciarán Shannon, a Consultant Clinical Psychologist, also provided valuable clinical support.
Dr Black explains that a number of studies have found that “Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for children with PTSD can be extremely effective. Each patient is different but we have found that goal setting and coping skills training can significantly improve the lives of sufferers.
"Studies like this are an important way for clinicians to not only help these children, but for us also to gain a better insight into how to help children suffering here – whether that be as a result of the Troubles or due to other traumatic experiences.”
The two Queen’s University postgraduate students have previously spent time in the world’s first primary school set up specifically to assist child soldiers in northern Uganda. While there, they measured levels of post-traumatic stress, explaining the symptoms of trauma to the children and offering psychological therapy to the most traumatised.
John McMullen expressed his thanks to Dr Harry Rafferty and Mr John Eakin, for providing academic support from Queen’s University and also for the financial support provided by local businesses, schools, family and friends whose donations enabled them to purchase vocational materials for the children.
The work undertaken in Uganda has played a crucial role in the group’s success in Congo where the United Nations reports that in the past seven years 31,000 children have been demobilized – many of them returning to their villages, traumatised, uneducated and isolated from their communities.
Dr Rafferty of Queen’s University Belfast said: “A particular strength of this intervention is that it can be conducted with groups of children rather than individuals, and in the ordinary school system using the teaching or counselling staff who are already in the school. It is therefore likely to be an accessible and cost-efficient way of helping children who have suffered terribly as a result of war in their country.”