During many years of working with individuals, families and children, I have come across individuals of all ages experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder, following various traumatic experiences including war and torture, helping them to rebuild their relationships to self, others, and the whole new world around them.
There is now a considerable body of scientific studies gained in relation to the psychological impact of war and torture on individuals and families.
There are also specifically trained and experienced family therapists and organisations in the UK and worldwide to help families to rebuild relationships after experiencing the impact of torture, displacement, and being forced to live in exile, leaving behind not only material belonging but also familiar aspects of life – language, culture, family values, beliefs, and the society in which they feel a strong sense of belonging.
While scientific research and work experience have their benefits, it needs to be acknowledged that each and every unique experience and circumstance will cause various degrees of hardship and psychological impact on the individual, family, young people, and children involved.
This raises caution in overgeneralising from what we have learned from literature. There is a need to look at any event experienced by an individual or a family and their reactions to those carefully so that the uniqueness of those experiences and individual psychological reactions are not missed.
The current coronavirus pandemic resulting in many countries undergoing lockdown has now introduced an unexpected, unique challenge to systemic therapy and in fact the whole therapeutic world regardless of their orientation and modality.
Children and families are currently experiencing major asks – social isolation, staying away from school, friends and relatives including grandparents – facing the most unsafe environment where everything is contaminated by coronavirus and you have to protect yourself by extreme measures.
This will have a greater impact especially on the younger children who are in their prime stages of cognitive and emotional developments and will find it difficult to comprehend and understand the rationale for all these behavioural changes in society being put in place. They are the ones who will be most affected not only in short term but also much longer-term developing significant mental health problems.
The whole world feels unsafe and the uncertainty about how and when this may end is affecting all. Parents finding themselves in an unprecedented situation unable to reassure their young children that everything will be fine and this will end soon.
They don’t know, no one knows when and how. It will be over at some point and everything will be fine but right now we are living a world in a scary position of unsafe uncertainty.
In the absence of the knowledge and previous experience specifically resembling the current situation, there are now more questions than solutions to what can be done. For example, what are the specific forms and manifestations of the impact of COVID-19 and the psychological problems developed short or long term in individuals, families, and children during and after the period of experiencing this unique life event, including the lockdown and social distancing? To what extent the younger children are aware of and understand the current situations and can adapt to new ways of daily life?
In view of the lockdown and no direct access to services, what support can systemic family therapists offer families and children during the current ongoing situation and post lockdown and social distancing stages to help with dealing with the aftermaths?
We are dealing with a major, new challenge not resembling what has ever been experienced before in the past many years. Do we have the knowledge, skills, and expertise sufficient enough to support and help children and families affected by what they are experiencing right now?
Zohreh Rahimi is a clinical psychologist, family and systemic psychotherapist, and clinical manager working at Freedom from Torture.