Volunteers are helping traumatised Libyans

Tangible mental health benefits have been provided to people traumatised by the war in Libya thanks to volunteers being trained to deliver psychological therapies, a study has found. Civil war broke out there in 2011 and up to 65,000 people were killed or injured, while thousands more became "internally displaced persons" living in refugee camps.

In November 2012, a team from Baylor University in the US and Acts of Mercy International travelled to Libya to assess the impact of the conflict and attempt to help.

Focusing on a camp of 2,500 people near Benghazi, they recruited ten volunteer civilians and gave them four hours' worth of intensive training in counselling and other therapies, before assigning them to a group of traumatised individuals.

When the 149 people who received the trainees' therapy filled in questionnaires ten weeks later, their mental health was found to have been improved and interaction had been boosted between the groups' members.

Lead author of the research Professor Matthew Stanford said in the South African Journal of Psychology that the findings have important implications for people traumatised by war elsewhere in the world.

Chartered Psychologist Lesie Carrick-Smith comments:

"Taking basic therapeutic principles and putting them into a format peers can deliver has been very effective," he added.

"This would appear to be a valuable resource; however, there are several caveats.

"Firstly, there has to be an awareness of cultural variation. Arab cultures tend to regard emotional distress as a 'weakness' and it is likely to be presented as physical pain or distress. This can be particularly so for men where the male responsibility to provide is taken very seriously and inability to do so badly compromises that role.

"Then, for some, provoked recall can re-traumatise whilst others can be greatly helped. Hence emanate the dangers we have with psychological 'debriefing' on a short-term or interim basis. Thus the intensive training described here must impart the necessary discrimination.

"However, all this said, one of the greatest helps to traumatised people can be simply to be with them - even silently, to help in practical ways, to listen, to gently draw out. It is in this context that direct US or other external agencies could encounter a mismatch.

"Thus indeed, guided support  by peers could be extremely valuable - whether or not we call it 'therapy'."

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