October 16, 2013

Refugee RadioI conceived of the Resilience project for Refugee Radio because there were so many people in the refugee community suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Many of them had survived war, torture and/or sexual violence. Now they found themselves experiencing symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety and insomnia.

The effects were devastating on family relationships, employment and health, leading in some cases to self-harm and suicide. And the worst thing was that so many refugees did not even know they had PTSD. The stigma and discrimination against mental health in their countries of origin were so bad that they could not even think of themselves in that way.

Those that did manage to take their problems to GPs were often misdiagnosed as having depression and were prescribed anti-depressants. They did not understand what was wrong and they were missing out on treatment that could have made a real difference.

The strange thing is that, even when I started working on the project for Refugee Radio, I did not realise that I had complex PTSD myself. I knew I was able to empathise with people who had been traumatised because I had experienced a traumatic childhood, but I did not see myself in the same boat. I had gone for counselling because I felt suicidal and thought I was depressed. It was only after a psychotherapist made the connection with my nightmares and insomnia that I realised what was happening. It was then that I experienced first-hand how hard it can be to access the right treatment. I was able to use this knowledge directly with the work I was doing with the refugee volunteers and felt like I was going on the journey with them as we developed the project.

I believe that the project has made a big difference in raising the issue of PTSD in the refugee communities we have worked with and in the commissioning environment in our area. It has also made a huge difference in my own life in terms of dealing with my condition and feeling empowered to be able to disclose my experiences to other people. Being open and upfront about these issues really helps to overcome the stigma and discrimination that people have experienced in the past and hopefully through projects such as these we can make it truly a thing of the past.

In previous projects I always stuck rigidly to my professional boundaries and would not have discussed any aspect of my own mental health with project participants. I would still not disclose any specific details as these are not relevant to the work, but now I am prepared to share my diagnosis and the lessons I have learnt about the system. Otherwise I am not practising what I preach and I have been too impressed by the bravery and courage of our volunteers to be able to keep concealing the truth.

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