Working Therapeutically with Victims of Community Violence in Northern Ireland

2 Jun

Stephen Coulter and Isobel Reilly are Lecturers in Social Work in the School – they have worked extensively in the area of trauma recovery using a systemic approach –  here they describe an aspect of that work:

To what extent should the experience of traumatisation be individualised and medicalised when it occurs as the result of a wider socio-cultural conflict?  How can the individual therapeutic needs of some victims of civil conflict be adequately addressed if it is only seen as part of a wider picture?  These issues are addressed by focusing on the work of The Family Trauma Centre, a community-based facility opened in early 2000 following the recommendations of the Northern Ireland Victims’ Commission as a regional service for children, young people and families affected by the civil conflict of the previous 30 years.   The practice in this centre is strongly influenced by ‘systemic’ thinking and a range of therapeutic approaches employed.

The context is  one of many children and young people being in proximity to traumatic events, occupying multiple roles as participants and perpetrators as well as victims of violence, young men being particular impacted by of so called ‘punishment attacks’ (vigilante paramilitary assaults) and a professional debate regarding resilience.  The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnostic category is limited in such contexts and there is a clearly established need to go far beyond this construction of traumatic stress when considering victims of widespread and entrenched community conflict, in which many communities are characterised by low-level chronic conflict, with periodic exacerbations affecting particular families and localities.

In these circumstances a ‘Systemic’ approach is particularly suited to holding the needs of individual victims within the wider social context.  When combined with a developmental understanding a therapeutic mixture of individual and family sessions, of art, enactment, writing, and storytelling for processing the traumatic events emerges as preferred therapeutic modality.  These methods have been illustrated via an extended case study, ‘the McGarry family’ (Reilly, McDermott, & Coulter, 2004), under the headings of: response to individual needs, seeing the bigger picture, taking the longer view, and writing and witnessing.  This demonstrates how the Systemic approach can effectively coordinate methods that are counter to the traumatic experiences, and explicitly site the traumatic experiences within the wider community context, thus avoiding pathologising at the individual or family level.

Reilly, I., McDermott, M., & Coulter, S. (2004) “Living in the Shadow of Community Violence in Northern Ireland: A Therapeutic Response. Chap. 14 In Boyd Webb, N. (Ed.) Mass Trauma and Violence: Helping Families and Children Cope. New York: Guilford.

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