The Falcon | Volume 83, Issue 53
Sustainable aid model creates lasting impact
By MEGAN HOYE,
Published: January 18 2012
[Editor's note: The spelling of Dr. Kira Mauseth's name has been corrected.]
Dr. John Thoburn, associate professor of clinical psychology at Seattle Pacific, was selected for the 2012 International Humanitarian Award, granted by the American Psychological Association.
Dr. Thoburn has traveled around the world to provide aid to disaster-stricken communities, such as Haiti, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Bosnia and China, and through his myriad experiences, one value has resonated: humility.
The crux of Dr. Thoburn’s work, he said, is in providing sustainable psychological first aid to victims of disasters.
Rather than taking a team of psychologists to offer support through therapy in the months immediately following a disaster, he and his colleagues provide training in basic psychological support for members of the communities they visit.
“Sustainability is really the idea of helping people help themselves,” Dr. Thoburn said.
Dr. Thoburn said that his travels taught him that as an outsider to cultures, despite his psychological expertise, he is limited culturally.
People embedded within a culture are better equipped to provide relief, he said.
In addition, the sustainable support model of relief creates long-term resources rather than providing fleeting support for only a short time after a disaster occurs.
“We want to decrease dependency needs and increase competency,” he said. His interest in sustainable psychological aid began in 1987 when he helped train Ugandan episcopal priests in basic traumatology.
“We weren’t trying to make mini-psychologists out of them,” Dr. Thoburn said. “We were just trying to help them support themselves and their parish members.”
Sustainable aid, he said, is a new idea in the psychological world.
The American Psychological Association’s award applauded Dr. Thoburn for his sustained humanitarian support to communities in need.
Since his time in Uganda, Dr. Thoburn has traveled around the world training people in psychological first aid, and after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, he and his colleagues developed a curriculum based on a sustainable model of psychological first aid.
Dr. Kira Mauseth led the development of the Health Support Team curriculum. She is a former student of Dr. Thoburn’s and received her doctorate in clinical psychology from SPU in 2008.
The project centered on providing relief to Haiti after the earthquake.
After the team took seven trips to the country with help from approximately 250 volunteers, Dr. Thoburn and his colleagues implemented the Health Support Team curriculum.
The program aspires to train indigenous volunteers in providing psychological first aid to their community members. Those trainees can in turn train others in psychological aid, creating a potentially limitless network of support, Dr. Thoburn said.
The benefits of a training-based approach are threefold, he said. First, the support provided is not temporary.
“Disaster relief agencies tend to jump from disaster to disaster,” Dr. Thoburn said.
This is, in part, he said, because media attention is high in the wake of a tragedy, but it quickly shifts elsewhere.
“Because of this, people are going over and providing short-term care without any follow-through,” he said. “But indigenous volunteers have a long-term commitment to their community.”
Second, Dr. Thoburn said, sustainable aid is more empowering to those it seeks to assist.
“For developing countries, disaster relief aid is both a blessing and a curse,” he said. “It actually tends to foster economic dependency.”
Finally, Dr. Thoburn said, his model of support is more successful in its aims.
Traditional relief workers can sometimes be more harmful than they are helpful, he said, especially since people with good intentions often enter disaster-stricken countries without invitation.
“When outsiders go to a disaster scene in a developing country, they require resources to stay there,” Dr. Thoburn said.
And in addition to their presence consuming the already limited resources in these developing countries, if relief workers bring a culturally uninformed approach to providing aid, the result can be devastating, especially in the mental health realm.
“Psychological first aid is so culture-bound that really the best people to do this work are the people indigenous to an area,” Dr. Thoburn said.
People who are already a part of the culture they are serving have an incomparable advantage in providing mental health support, Dr. Thoburn said.
“There’s a big gap when you’re working with a translator in the mental health field,” he said.
When he was in Bosnia, for example, he said he and a group of therapists were providing support to a village of dairy farmers.
“We were doing the best we could, but we were missing it culturally,” he said. “One of the psychologists who was with us started asking [a man] questions, ticking through the symptoms of PTSD, but we basically moved this guy outside the circle.
“[The psychologist] was trying to do psychological assessment that was culturally inappropriate and completely missed who they were. It wasn’t until we started asking them to tell us stories that we got somewhere.”
That experience was revelatory to Dr. Thoburn.
“I realized that the people who know what’s appropriate [for psychological support] are the people themselves,” he said.
He said people who seek to support tragedy-stricken communities should always retain respect for the cultures in which they work and recognize their limits as outsiders.
Even his work within America, Dr. Thoburn said, has been wrapped in cultural differences.
“It was wild,” Dr. Thoburn said, remembering the time he spent providing relief to victims in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“People literally couldn’t understand each other,” he said. “We were all speaking the same language, but because of the accents, people were just missing each other.”
Dr. Thoburn said his experience providing mental health support around the world has shown him how important the Health Support Team curriculum is.
Currently, he and his colleagues are completing an outcome study regarding the success of the program’s implementation in Haiti.
“It hasn’t been published yet, but people are already talking about how positively affected their lives have been through this program,” Dr. Thoburn said.
Next, he hopes to begin the program in Japan, although he said that orchestrating it might be difficult.
“Japan would be the perfect place, but they don’t really want outside help,” he said. “And we’ll never go anywhere without an invitation.”
Still, Dr. Thoburn said he hopes the positive impact his model has had in Haiti will provide an inventation in Japan.
Overall, Dr. Thoburn said his travels have taught him to be humble in the limits of his psychological expertise, because cultural understanding is more important when providing mental health support.
“We are at our best when we temper our confidence and ability with humility,” he said. “Americans have a great deal to learn from people around the world.”
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