AJWS grantee THRP helps survivors handle the psychological aftermath of the epidemic.
Liberia may finally be Ebola-free, but that doesn’t mean it will immediately recover from the epidemic, which infected 10,000 people and killed 5,000, a Liberian activist told the AJWS staff during a visit to our New York office.
The West African country is still grappling with Ebola’s aftermath, including the psychological trauma experienced by survivors, orphans and relatives of victims. Throughout Liberia, people who survived the brutal ravages of the disease are now experiencing post-traumatic stress and the grief of losing family members. Their trauma is magnified by the stigma and rejection imposed on them by others. It is not uncommon for a survivor to return home after weeks in isolation only to find that her entire family is dead and her village will not allow her to rejoin communal life.
Until Ebola survivors are allowed to reintegrate into society, efforts to restore the country’s economy and health system will fall flat, said Abel Learwellie, a research and documentation officer at Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program (THRP), which is responding to the Ebola crisis with funding from AJWS.
“In the absence of healing, Liberia is currently a fragile country,” he said. “People will not be able to actually do their work. People will not be able to go to school. People will not be able to do those things that would bring about continued development and wellbeing. It would set the country back.”
Media attention has turned elsewhere since Liberia was declared safe, but AJWS is still supporting almost a dozen community-based organizations like THRP picking up the pieces the crisis left behind.
Overall, since Ebola intensified last August, AJWS sent more than $763,000 in emergency aid to help about 20 grantees staunch the transmission of the virus in their communities and help people recover. They led public health campaigns; went door-to-door to educate communities about how to fend off infection; collaborated with county health teams and task forces to ensure a coordinated response; trained religious leaders, women’s groups and media organizations to educate Liberians in their native tongues about safe hygiene; and more. Today, AJWS grantees are staying in communities to help people process their feelings and begin the slow return to normalcy. Before Ebola, AJWS provided Liberia with more than $1.7 million in human rights grants since 2003.
AJWS added THRP to its list of grantees last month, committing $95,000 for nine months to help social workers and healthcare professionals counsel survivors and hold community workshops. THRP is no stranger to tense situations—it sprang from Liberia’s civil war in the 1990s to build peace and reconciliation with psychosocial rehabilitation programs—but Ebola was something else.
“During the civil war,” Abel said, “maybe you could escape from the guns and go elsewhere for refuge, but during the crisis of Ebola, it was impossible for anyone to escape because it was everywhere. So people began staying at home.”
Denial and subsequent fear helped fuel the disease’s spread, he said. In the beginning, THRP held workshops to raise awareness about hygiene and behavior. Now, it trains seven organizations (some of which are also receiving grants from AJWS to do their post-Ebola work) in six counties to care for survivors, who often have nowhere to live or work. Some orphans are turned away by schools and snubbed by peers.
Abel spoke about one man who was taken away by ambulance and treated for Ebola at a trauma unit during the height of the crisis. When he returned home, his wife and six of his seven children were all dead. He was suicidal and listless when Abel and the THRP staff first met with him at his house. But after they encouraged community members to interact with him again, he’s back to teaching, playing sports and attending religious services.
THRP is working with about 150 survivors and their communities to prevent and treat PTSD, debunk misunderstandings about lingering contagion and provide space for dialogue. It also facilitates traditional ceremonies to expel what people believe to be curses from survivors. Communities procure and fund supplies like animals and bush leaves for the rituals, which vary from place to place.
THRP also helps staff of community organizations examine and treat their own psychological stress.
Abel wasn’t immune to trauma: “I was very shocked,” he said. “I began worrying about people who lost parents and family, always thinking about others. I felt very sorry and wished I could help more.” As he tells his colleagues, the healing process is very individual. For him, playing on the computer and taking walks helps alleviate his anxiety.
THRP wouldn’t be doing any of this without AJWS’s support, Abel said.
“It has strengthened our organizational capacities to do more training,” he said. “[The psychosocial component] is urgent and it needs serious attention right now so we’ll be able to overcome what happened to us and get back on the road to recovery.”