Vincent Sezibera on the need for Rwandans to be trauma informed

A trauma victim being helped at a commemoration event. Psychologists are calling for a trauma informed society to help in the healing process.

The Rwanda Psychology Society (RPS) this week held a symposium to raise awareness among Rwandans on the different realities surrounding trauma and for psychology experts to reflect on their work in terms of trauma management, lessons learned, challenges and moving from the grassroots initiatives, which have contributed to devising policies, strategies, and institutionalised practices.

Vincent Sezibera, the president of Rwanda Psychological Society and professor at the University of Rwanda, Center of Mental Health, talked to Sharon Kantengwa about the state of trauma in Rwanda and what needs to be done going forward.

Intergenerational trauma is a new challenge among young people. How does it come about?

First, it’s important to confirm whether children that were born post-genocide, their trauma is transmitted from their parents because after the genocide we might have other circumstances that may have affected children.

Any experience can be traumatic depending on mechanisms of transmission that can be determined from the parenting style, how they interact with children, how they respond to questions about the genocide and identity. When the parents who have suffered trauma don’t explain, the children create their own story which is anxiety related.

We will also learn from colleagues who have done research on epigenetics, where the genes structure and sequencing transmit information from our parents, common in people facing chronic trauma disorder. From them we want to anticipate and mitigate what we can do in case of such transmission.

A traumatic event can leave one with many symptoms of mental illness. How can one better understand their condition and cause of such symptoms?

The good news is that all individuals exposed to traumatic events do not necessarily develop pathologies. The prevalence will differ depending on the traumatic circumstances, to mean natural disasters or human disasters. Regardless of the magnitude of the trauma such people are able to anticipate the events so that it never happens to them again. Even though the person is not presenting all the symptoms that are characteristic of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) you can see a few signs related to trauma changes.

Even though we know by clinical practice, that a person should meet a minimum of seven symptoms we have those who are presenting three.

Such people may have some difficulties which may require a lot of help or take decisions on how to cope with them, because how you interpret one symptom will either aggravate the situation or help you come out of it.

Stigma is also a challenge that has affected the rate at which survivors cope with mental related disorders. What can be done to deal with stigma?

Stigma affects how we cope and seek help. Stigma comes with negative perception, which is also associated with stereotypes and in the end we have isolation or discrimination.

Sometimes the individual has a negative perception on what is happening to them but also there is popular stigma from society. In Rwanda we have both although, we are beginning to see some changes where the community understands that someone with trauma related difficulties should be helped.

A recent study with Rwanda Biomedical Center (RBC), showed that a majority of our population, know some of these symptoms of PTSD and other mental disorders.

In a sample of 21,000 participants, 22 per cent know where to seek help but only five per cent of those reported that they went to consult a professional to get help.

It is an embarrassing situation and we are seeking answers because we thought it is because of stigma and in-affordability but it’s none of those.

What I think is affecting our society is ignorance which should not be confused with illiteracy because even those who are learned ignore the importance of it.

Apart from psychological support what are some of the other ways one can heal from trauma?

Emotional support and psychological support go hand in hand. Psychological support involves changing the way we perceive the situation we are in, which means being realistic.

When you empower the person to think realistically it will change the emotions and feelings. So passing on this message to the population will encourage those who have put in place coping strategies, to engage in their personal development process.

What we are also encouraging institutions is to avail more training opportunities so that we can have professionals in the domain specializing.Being a clinical psychologist is one thing but we can have specialists in different domains like anxiety related disorders, specializing in PTSD, in children.

As a nation, we are concerned with intergenerational trauma, but the way we deal with the first generation will not be the same way we deal with the second generation, and dealing with trauma in survivors and perpetrators is also different.

We need to specialize to understand the similarities and differences and how they are affecting the social functioning.

Where do you see Rwanda in the next 25 years as regards to trauma healing?

I believe that what Rwandans should learn from the last 25 years is to be trauma informed.

They should be trauma informed from the social policy making because a single word we use in a speech can either trigger trauma difficulties or be medication to the trauma patient.

This should start with the media disseminating the right information but also dedicating some time to educate the masses about trauma because trauma should be healed from the health perspective but also the social setting.

We also want to pass on a message that just like other professions have regulatory bodies which support, empower and give capacity building but also regulate the behaviors of practitioners, the government to set up these regulatory bodies for practitioners in the psychology field so that they can meet the standards