The Importance of Hope for Survivors of Torture and Trauma

Critical resources, such as mental health counseling and legal support, help survivors rebuild their lives, their confidence and their outlook.

Torture — defined by the United Nations as any act by or without intervention from a public official or someone acting in an official capacity in which severe mental and/or physical pain or suffering is inflicted upon a person to punish, intimidate or coerce, or is based upon discrimination — affects numerous people, many civilians, across the world. Exact estimates are hard to place, although a 2015 meta-analysis by the Center for Victims of Torture estimates that 44 percent of refugees and asylees entering the United States each year have been affected. Given that there are estimated to be 3 million refugees, asylees, and asylum-seekers in the United States, 1.3 million of those individuals may have been tortured.

This spring, several NVFS staff members were actively involved in the National Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs (NCTTP) Annual Research Symposium to provide insights into the challenges asylum seekers face from both a mental health and legal standpoint:

  • Julia Oakley, mental health therapist and coordinator for NVFS’ Program for Survivors of Severe Torture and Trauma (PSTT), served as an elected At-Large Member of the Executive Committee of the NCTTP and helped plan the symposium
  • Alison Burke, MSW, a PSTT clinical case manager, presented “Addressing Despair Associated with the Protracted Asylum Process in Mental Health Treatment” along with Dr. Suzan Song, MD, MPH, PhD.
  • Katherine Fourmy, J.D., an NVFS immigration attorney, was a keynote speaker presenting on the “Impact of Legal Immigration Changes upon Survivors”

As noted during the symposium, the effects of these experiences are severe, deep-seated and enduring. Oftentimes survivors feel lost and are in need of assistance to regain the hope to move forward.

In addition to the traumatic experiences these individuals have had, survivors of torture often face further complicating factors in the following areas:

  • Basic resources (e.g., lack of financial resources, food, shelter, medical care)
  • External risks (e.g., lack of safety at home, community, work, or school)
  • Relationships (e.g., trouble with family support, social connectedness)
  • Age (namely older adults)
  • Post-migration stressors (e.g., acculturation, family issues, socioeconomic living conditions)

The longer these factors are left unaddressed, the more likely it is for mental health to deteriorate. Survivors often combat feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, demoralization, numbness and suicidal tendencies as a result of the effects of torture, the chronic life stressors noted above and the asylum process, which can increase their feelings of uncertainly and fear.

A longer asylum period may be an increasing area of concern based on recent changes to the asylum process — namely that those more recently submitted their asylum applications will be processed first, while those who have been waiting, oftentimes for years, will be pushed to the back of the list.

“The announcement greatly affects the more than 311,000 people who have applied for asylum since 2014 and are still waiting for their cases to be heard,” shares Fourmy.

“The opportunity to receive asylum is critically important for many immigrants,” she adds. “Asylum seekers are fleeing all kinds of violence, persecution and threats. Some of the most vulnerable are the children who are fleeing horrific gang violence in Central America. Asylum offers many survivors the opportunity to stay in the United States, safe from the threats and fears from the country they fled. Winning an asylum case puts a person on a path to a green card, and eventually citizenship.”

In addition to NVFS’ immigration legal services, NVFS provides therapy, psychiatric services, clinical case management, referrals, groups and workshops, and other direct assistance to meet survivors’ holistic needs. NVFS mental health staff notice that a central struggle for survivors in the United States, particularly those currently in the process of seeking asylum, is dealing with hopelessness and despair.

“Survivors come to us with so many burdens on their shoulders. They lack a sense of safety. Most are separated from their families. A big part of our job working with survivors of torture is to help them to cultivate hope for the future,” notes Oakley.

NVFS works through a series of supports to help individuals establish a network and better connect to the world around them, starting with the individual himself or herself. Clinicians help clients identify issues both inside and outside of their control, and develop coping skills and connections to better address them. This could include helping to create objectives and action steps to visualize a path toward an end goal, as well as teaching mindfulness and relaxation techniques to calm anxiety.

The support extends to the family, including any additional therapy that may be needed, as well as education on their rights and how to advocate for themselves and their family members.

In addition to providing services and education to survivors, NVFS works with community partners to educate them on the issues facing survivors of torture in the community and collaborates with them on how we can best work together to support survivors. Members of the faith community, as well as other service providers, receive training on the asylum process, the needs of asylum seekers, available resource and services, and how to support survivors in our community so that we can increase the network of available resources to those in need.

“These partnerships, and the expanded support networks for survivors that result, are essential in helping survivors feel welcome, encouraged, and hopeful,” shares Meredith McKeen, Director of Youth Initiatives and the Multicultural Center.

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