Healing through expression

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The Healing through Expression (HtE) project is a unique and first of its kind Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) initiative in the Northeast of Nigeria, funded by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and designed to provide relieve from psychological distress associated with Gender Based Violence (GBV) and Living with Disabilities (LWD). Due to the sensitive nature of GBV, the discrimination and stigma attached to it, and the possibility of causing more harm to the project’s beneficiaries by way of association, the term is avoided, where possible during the implementation of the project. The project is open to all, mostly women and girls, as GBV awareness is a community-wide responsibility, and in all cases, preventative measures are much preferred over reactionary measures, which aim to address the problem after it has arrived at its ultimate conclusion (e.g., rape, battery, denial of basic rights). Nonetheless, during the sensitisation, advocacy and assessments, any beneficiary found to have survived or currently undergoing GBV-related challenges are given the full range of programming.

The HtE Project offers healing to survivors of the violent insurgency who have undergone or currently undergoing GBV-related mental health challenges, through individual counselling, group counselling and expressive therapy. Through this project, Neem Foundation combines its years of offering MHPSS through individual and group counselling, art therapy and mindfullness in Borno State, across different initiatives, with psychodrama, a unique form of expression that provides a platform to talk about sensitive issues, of which GBV-related issues are characteristic.

Project activities

Through support from counsellors and psychologists, the healing through expression team provide trauma-informed counselling to help survivors of S/GBV to work through their difficult (often-traumatic) experiences as part of the process of rebuilding themselves and improving their social and emotional well-being and resilience. This is important to the process of post-conflict reintegration for affected women when they return to their communities.

The unique experiences of women and girls that are survivors or rape, domestic violence or abduction call for utmost confidentiality and the necessity of providing counselling services in locations where they would feel a sense of safety. Creative arts and activities such as psychodrama, crafts, painting, reading, dance can all contribute to successful therapeutic interventions. Expressive therapy sessions provide useful insight into the effectiveness of creative pursuits as part of a comprehensive approach to psychosocial support, especially for adolescent girls and younger women. Not only can they directly address psychological trauma but also help in enhancing resilience and promoting a greater sense of community, friendship and mutual support.

Mental health services are primarily limited to serving those with serious and persistent mental illnesses, and the affected survivors requiring attention far outweigh the mental health capacity available. Necessity has therefore arisen for an increased effort by organisations with mental health capacity to train first line responders and clinicians (psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, etc.) within the Neuropsychiatric Hospital, to improve their ability to respond to issues of SGBV, while also improving the sustainable capacity of health facilities. The training is intended as a guide to train health workers on how to respond to the psychosocial effects of sexual/gender-based violence and also help participants understand how these survivors cope with the emotional effects of conflict and sexual/gender-based violence, and how they can facilitate natural recovery processes.

Community members and students are offered psychoeducation and awareness of S/GBV issues. Women and girls are educated on situations to avoid and report, while boys are educated on the consequences of abuse on the survivors and society at large. The purpose of this activity was to address social and individual factors that provide an enabling environment for S/GBV, as well as provide mental health relieve through expressive therapy. The psychosocial workers provided both group based and individual sessions.