Family and couple therapy training and war victims with missing relatives in northern Uganda

During my internship period, from February until June, in Uganda I was privileged to be able to be part of the team Centre for Children in Vulnerable Situations (CCVS) amidst the pandemic that was affecting not only the clients but also my colleagues. Not so many students were able to do the internship programs abroad due to the restrictions taking place in many countries. I was one of the lucky ones who were allowed to travel outside the EU.

I spent time in Lira, one of the areas affected by the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) war. A war that lasted for 20 years and wrecked a lot of communities in northern Uganda. It has left a lot of families with deceased and missing relatives or loved ones. CCVS is an organisation that has spent many years conducting research, to study the psycho-social well-being of persons living in vulnerable situations that are relevant for practitioners; support for children, youth, and adults by providing group and individual psycho-social counselling. At last large dissemination: workshops, publications, website and international conferences, to bring awareness on the topic mental health.

For my degree program Advanced Bachelor: International Cooperation North-South (ICNS), I had to write a thesis that is related to my internship. My topic is ‘what can be the positive effects of family and couple counselling according to therapists of war victims of missing relatives in Northern Uganda within Lira District?’ At the beginning of my internship in the month of February I was able to participate in the field work (group psycho-social counselling sessions) with my mentor and two staff members. During the group counselling I found out that some women were talking about their missing husbands and sons that are still missing after the war. They still don’t know whether they are alive or dead. This brought to my attention that the victims with missing relatives have not been prioritized. The experiences of distress are often not addressed, validated, or recognised in society. When I discussed with my mentor about the topic we came up with the idea to organize a family and couple therapy training to counsellors of CCVS.

The new project of the organisation funded by Trust Funds for Victims (TFV), is called ‘Centre for expertise in psychological support services for war-affected individuals, families and communities’, the training of family and couple therapy is included. I was given the chance to give a training together with the clinical supervisor. The training is linked to my research topic. The purpose of it is to understand and reflect on training and research topics that could help contribute to to the organisation CCVS. The training took place between 31st of May and 4th of June 2021. The training covered two areas of counselling which were Family (Systemic) Therapy and Emotional Focused Couples Therapy (EFT). I explained some basic techniques of therapeutic conversations (different types of questions, genogram, and six guidelines of resilience).

It was a difficult topic to research and get an in-depth answer to my research question due to the limited amount of time to conduct interviews and research families with missing relatives. Ambiguous loss is part of it, which was introduced by a family therapist Dr. Pauline Boss, who pioneered her research on ambiguous loss in family therapy. In general, there are two different types of ambiguous loss: (1) when someone is physically absent but psychologically present (natural disasters, armed conflicts…); (2) person who is physically present but psychologically absent (e.g. Alzheimer/Traumatic brain injury…). I have introduced and discussed the topic of ambiguous loss and the six guidelines, with the counsellors of CCVS, that are mainly used for any type of intervention process that is required for support and flexibility depending on the culture and power of structure of the members involved. Throughout the entire training sessions there were interactive discussions, role plays with examples and self-care activities.

It was my first time organizing and giving training sessions. Although I have faced some challenges for the preparation, I am satisfied that the training towards the end of my internship period was successful. I have made sure I engaged counsellors as much as possible by allowing them to provide experiences they had with their clients. Later on, I received many positive comments on the way I delivered the training and on my attitude. It was crazy to me that they mentioned that I did not look nervous at all (although internally I felt so nervous!) and that I should do more training in the future. I am usually very shy when presenting or discussing topics in front of the audience. Their feedback boosted my confidence even more than I realized. The training with a balance of knowledge and practical skills according to counsellors of CCVS could improve the quality of counselling, with the added value that could improve the positive effects on family members with missing relatives. Thanks to this training counsellors can be a decisive factor in improving lives of so many heavily traumatized victims’ of war.

Thanks to feedback, presentations (group and individually), group and individual work, and internship, I have become more self-confident and self-sufficient. While writing my bachelor thesis, I was able to broaden my perspective and my horizon on sensitive topics that are close to my heart. At the same time, I was able to use my talents and gain many new insights.

Keda H.

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