ScienceDaily (Oct. 10, 2011) — Two postgraduate students from Queen's University, Belfast, 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.
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."