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Overcoming trauma

Working through trauma in Zimbabwe and Lebanon

Written by Stanley Hanya 2021 Available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese

Chinguema in Mozambique indicates the level reached by flood water during Cyclone Idai. The cyclone had a devastating impact in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. Photo: David Mutua/Tearfund

Chinguema in Mozambique indicates the level reached by flood water during Cyclone Idai. The cyclone had a devastating impact in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. Photo: David Mutua/Tearfund

Through hard work and determination, Festus now runs a successful business, making and selling liquid soap. Photo: Cheshire Disability Services Kenya

From: Mental health and well-being – Footsteps 113

Practical ideas to help build resilience and enhance well-being

‘When I see clouds forming or hear the sound of heavy trucks, I feel sick because it reminds me of what I saw and heard during Cyclone Idai,’ says a member of Chipinge community in Zimbabwe.

When Cyclone Idai hit Chipinge in March 2019, the size of the disaster was overwhelming. Many hundreds of people lost family members, friends and neighbours, as well as their homes and possessions. The community was left shattered and traumatised by what they had experienced. People suffered from nightmares, had trouble sleeping and could not walk in the dark because it reminded them of the night the cyclone hit their community. Any rain would cause the trauma to re-emerge.

Local support

While carrying out a needs assessment in Chipinge it became clear to a team from the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe that there was a desperate need for psychological support. As a result, 60 local church and community facilitators were trained by Africa University in Mental Health First Aid.

The objective was to build a team of local people able to provide mental health support to their community, both immediately and in the longer term. The group was trained in topics such as trauma, survivor empowerment and healing of memory.

The facilitators are now supporting community members both one-to-one and in small groups. They refer people to organisations such as Childline and the Department of Social Welfare if more specialised support is needed from social workers and counsellors.

One of the facilitators, Mr Sithole, says that the journey they are travelling with individuals has helped them understand that addressing trauma is a process, not an event: ‘There is a need to build relationships with people so they can share with you what they are experiencing, and how it has affected their lives.’

The training has helped the facilitators to overcome some of their own trauma as well. Mr Nduna, a church leader, says, ‘Before the training I did not know that I was traumatised and hurting, but during the training I managed to get help and now I am able to help my family and others.’

Helping each other

Mr Sithole and Mr Nduna are conducting monthly group sessions with a maximum of six people in each group.

One group member says, ‘When we were speaking one-to-one with facilitators I was seeing progress, but I still felt I was in my own world. But when we began group sessions I realised that others were also facing the same trauma and together we are helping each other.’ Another adds, ‘Healing takes time, but we feel that the burden is not as heavy as it was.’


Trauma is an emotional response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event. Initial reactions of shock and denial may be replaced by unpredictable emotions, feelings of hopelessness, sadness, despair, guilt and physical symptoms such as nausea and headaches.

Some people may develop Post-traumatic stress disorder and suffer from persistent and frightening nightmares and other memories of their ordeal.

Vicarious trauma is when people who spend time supporting survivors of traumatic events begin to experience symptoms of trauma themselves.

Mental health First Aid

The Mental Health First Aid programme was developed in Australia in 2000 and since then it has been adopted by many other countries. The aim is to increase community understanding of mental health and the different things that can affect well-being. Trainees learn how to notice the signs of poor mental health and gain the confidence to reassure and support people in distress.

Many Mental Health First Aid courses use the acronym ‘ALGEE’ to help participants remember the steps to follow.

  • Assess for risk of suicide or harm: If you are worried about someone, choose a good time and place to talk to them about it. If you notice signs of self-harm or extreme distress they may be in a crisis situation and require immediate professional help. Otherwise, continue to the next step.
  • Listen without judgement: A person experiencing a mental health problem needs to be able to talk without feeling judged. Do not worry if you do not know what to say. The most important thing you can do is to listen carefully with patience and compassion.
  • Give reassurance and information: Support the person in whatever way you can – practically, emotionally and spiritually. This may include providing nutritious meals, offering prayer or meeting up regularly to talk. Provide the person with trustworthy information to help them understand what they are experiencing. It can be comforting for people to know that they are not the only ones feeling this way.
  • Encourage self-help and other support strategies: Encourage the person to ask for support from family, friends and spiritual leaders. Other self-help strategies include regular exercise, getting sufficient sleep and starting a new hobby such as drawing or growing vegetables. Encourage the person not to misuse alcohol or other drugs as these can make the problem worse.
  • Encourage appropriate professional help: Mental health conditions can often be effectively treated with a mix of medical and psychological therapies. Where possible, encourage the person to speak to a doctor or community health worker about what they are experiencing and the impact it is having.

Case study: Strengthening body and mind

The rooftop in Jordan is cold and wet from the rain, but after a short discussion, all the men are out running in a circle, starting the warm-up exercises.

For the next 45 minutes, the 12 men on the rooftop are running, jumping, moving arms up and down, doing push-ups, squats and other exercises.

Exercise and community: two good ways to build resilience and begin to overcome trauma. Photo: Stella Chetham/Tearfund

Exercise and community: two good ways to build resilience and begin to overcome trauma. Photo: Stella Chetham/Tearfund

Painful stories

All the men in this fitness group are refugees from Syria. They have painful stories to tell of war, flight and the loss of loved ones, homes and businesses. When they arrived in Jordan, many found the loss of community and the inability to work and provide for their families very difficult.

‘Basically, we just sat at home, causing trouble and problems in the family,’ says one participant. ‘But now we are coming out to take part in activities. And when we meet and visit each other, we talk. We are like friends and brothers now.’

Fitter and healthier

After the exercises are over, all of the men agree that they are feeling fitter and healthier because of the programme. It is also helping their mental health. ‘I feel more peace, and I am calmer now,’ says one participant. ‘It has helped my nerves… I have learnt to control my anger better, so I don’t hurt other people.’

One of his friends adds: ‘Life as a refugee is hard. Before the programme, I could be at home, really depressed. Now I have something to go to, there is a regular pattern in my days and my mood has improved.’

The men also highlight the positive value of the discussions at the beginning of each gathering. ‘We have learnt how to treat our children and wives well, how to act in a good way, giving more love and strength,’ says one man. Another shares how he no longer beats his wife when he is angry. ‘I also feel more capable of treating neighbours and people in the community well,’ he says.

Written by

Written by  Stanley Hanya

Stanley Hanya is the Church and Community Mobilisation Coordinator with the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe.

email: [email protected]

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