Posted by: Daniel McCurdy | March 12, 2013

Counseling Countries?

Today I had the opportunity to reconnect with a friend I made on a missions trip to Nigeria. He happened to be in the area so we got together for lunch and had the afternoon to talk. Diane Langberg also spoke in my psychopathology class about Dissociative Identity Disorder and its connection to complex trauma. I don’t have the time now to go into what complex trauma is in detail, but I will briefly describe it as a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that comes out of the chronic abuse of what should be a care giving figure. If you are interested in more information on this I would send you over to my professor’s blog where he has slides entitled “New Advances Complex Trauma”. Here is the link:

Now you may be asking what does my friend have to do with complex trauma? Well, I wouldn’t be writing this if it had to do with him individually. I am going to theorize that some countries seem to have a form of complex, or at least, severe trauma. Let’s start with a short history lesson.

African nations were once independent, living on their own. Then a number of European countries decided that they should colonize any land regardless of who happens to live their already. Slave trade came out of this, crops were sent out of the countries, social structures were destroyed, and this is not all that happened. The Europeans tried to westernize Africa, they tried to take what made the people groups distinctive away from them. They tried to take their music, culture, and history. They told them that without Europe they would be nothing. If you would like to read a book about this I would encourage you to read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe who also happens to be Nigerian.

Now in the 1960’s and 70’s these European countries basically abandoned their African empire. You may have noticed that Nigeria, Mali and many other countries are showing up in the news for their civil unrest. It seems that these countries are a mess, and a lot of them are. Some of the poorest countries in the world are found on the African continent. Why after 40 years have they been unable to “pull themselves together?” I would say it is because they have been abused, and need healing before they can fully function.

I’m at a loss for where to start, so I think I’ll give you a couple examples of what my friend was saying. He told me about a trip he took to England where he saw a beautiful building that was 180 years old and said that in Nigeria they can barely boast of something that is 10 years old. It seems to him that the designer of this magnificent building had access to something that Nigerian’s and other African nations just don’t have the capacity access.

I told him that sometimes survivors of abuse feel that they are dirty, and filthy, unable and unworthy to do the things others do. I asked him if this sounded similar to what he was saying, and he answered that it really did. He went on to say that he felt that he feels like Nigeria will just always be a third world country; that there isn’t anything that can change this.

Here is a description of a common trauma experience from the slides I mentioned before (slide 7 if you are looking at them). Intense fear, paralysis/helplessness, inability to effect any change, threat of annihilation, leading to experience of, Loss of voice, control, connection, and meaning, resulting in, disorganized physical, cognitive and emotional response system thereby increasing, Relational pain, distrust, self-contempt, overwhelming anxiety, evidenced as, Running from the past, afraid of the future. Now I would like to give a few caveats before I continue. I am not saying that every person in the country feels this way, but that the country functions, and its society as a whole thinks this way. I am also not trying to say that this is exactly like what an individual experiences as trauma. I am just trying to apply the model of trauma to a larger scale because I think it fits.

We’ve already talked about how it seems that there is a perception of inability to effect change. Next comes loss of control, meaning, voice and connection. Does it seem like some countries have lost control? Seeing as there is so much unrest, and often civil war I think we  can say yes to that. There is often a loss of meaning and voice in Africa because so many of these countries are caught between having been colonized by another country for so long and whatever comes next. There is not a strong cultural identity, it is confused and when this confusion exists its hard to have a voice.

Let’s talk about how disorganized the response systems are. My friend was telling me that in Nigeria there are just layers and layers of bad policies, of corruption. This is even true with the physical infrastructure. The roads are not well kept, and people drive like crazy. A once active rail system is in shambles because people just can’t get together to get it going again. Elections (which I was present for) bring about the unease of violence. Electricity goes on and off at the drop of a hat. The politicians don’t respond effectively to the needs of the people. Justice is not served. I could go on.

Relational pain, self-contempt, distrust, especially towards other countries. In a number of books I have read a common theme of doing work in Africa is that people don’t trust that you will be there for the long run. You have to prove that you really do care and that you’re not just there to make yourself feel good. We also talked about before how my friend feels that his country can’t do anything right, and won’t be able to do so in the future.

This last point is a really interesting one, running from the past and afraid of the future. I asked my friend if they talk about what things were like before and during colonization, and he said they didn’t really talk about it other than just a couple dates. This sounds just like running from the past to me. It sounds like repressing a memory because it is just to painful to live with. I can’t speak as much for fear of the future, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

So what do we do with nations that have been traumatized? If there were an outbreak of cholera you wouldn’t just bring in a doctor to treat individuals. You would bring in a public health systems expert to also look for the cause and work towards prevention in the future. Counseling is generally focused on the individual, but does have the systems approach of Marriage and Family Counseling. Within this view problems are seen as part of a larger system such as the family. To solve these problems effectively you have to work with the family. So I suppose to solve a national systems problem you have to work with the nation. But that is rather complicated.

In individual counseling we would start with safety and stabilization which is composed of alliance building, support networks, coping, grounding, and education about the nature of trauma. This is the longest and most important phase. While immensely difficult, this can work with the individual. I’m not sure you can do the same thing with a country, but I am not an experienced counselor of any variety so I may just be showing a lack of understanding.

On the national scale it seems that education about the nature of trauma, about what happened, may be the most useful. Telling the story of what happened seems very important. If safety and stabilization can take years for an individual, maybe it will take decades for a nation. Maybe it takes educating students and giving them a voice to begin the process of stabilization. I am still working from the slides I mentioned. Increasing self-reflective capacities and increasing positive coping skills are important initial goals.

The focus of telling this story should be on grief, loss, and shame rather than anxiety. Nigerians, and many other countries, need to mourn what was taken from them, they need to mourn what was done to them. Great loss has occurred, and that needs to be addressed. Civilizations that once were, have been forever changed, the chance to grow in their own way is gone. They have been changed by what happened. The goal cannot be to go back to what was there before Europe showed up, it is gone.

Telling this story is important because it supports grieving. It also gives voice. Previously, I mentioned that trauma can result in a loss of voice. I have studied education and theology in Africa through a number of courses and one of the recurrent themes is that for growth Africa needs to form African ways of doing things. Too often the infrastructures that are in place are based off of European models, and they don’t work for Africans. Educational theorists call for Africans to develop their own systems of education based on what works for Africans. Similarly, theologians call for Africans to develop their own theological models instead of being reliant on western theology. The theme here is that they need to develop their own voice. They need to develop a strong concept of the self and who they are.

So, telling the story isn’t enough, but it is a start. In telling the story of what happened a voice will develop. Hopefully, the idea that I don’t have to be ruled by the evil done to me can begin to take hold. Out of this can develop new skills, and a new identity. People from Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mail, Nigeria and many other countries can begin to say what it means to be part of their country today.

Some of you may think that I’m off base on this, and I welcome your comments. I would love to hear what people think about this idea.



  1. Thanks Daniel for the mention. I too think about how one counsels/helps a whole system. One of the requirements is to tell the whole story of the impact of colonization in destroying governing local infrastructure and perpetuating some of those European models…and then asking why they haven’t solved their problems yet. Seems a bit like the Jim Crow era where many wondered why former slaves hadn’t solved their problems yet.

    In thinking about entire countries, I came across this article relating to PTSD in Afghanistan:

  2. Thanks for this article, it truly expresses the black race experience… Key point is “they need to develop a strong concept of the self and who they are”… a change of perception and total paradigm shift is required.

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