Coping skills go global to aid survivors

UC IRVINE (US)—An organization that formed in 2004 to help survivors of natural disasters deal with emotional fallout now provides mental health services to victims in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Uganda, and Indonesia.

Among the international experts who helped establish the group, Psychology Beyond Borders, is Roxane Cohen Silver a professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Cohen Silver and Edwin Tan, a UC Irvine graduate student, are teaching coping skills to about 400 adults and their children in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The province was hard hit in 2006 by a 6.3-magnitude earthquake that killed nearly 6,000 people. Many survivors have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as anxiety and sleep problems.

The families are learning to express their emotions through group therapy sessions, where they receive feedback on how to manage stress and fear. Participants are given information on how to react calmly in stressful situations, and learn to recognize behaviors or actions that hinder coping.

“Coping with disaster is a family issue,” Cohen Silver says. “We’re interested in the role parents play in helping their children deal with it.”

The project has special significance for Tan, whose parents were born and raised in Indonesia. “Knowing the culture and language definitely has helped our work,” he says.

Survivors of natural disasters, Tan says, often exhibit behavioral problems—running away from loud noises, for example. Psychology Beyond Borders offers tips on how to react calmly and share their thoughts during therapy sessions.

“Indonesians tend to avoid outwardly showing their emotions and often repress their feelings,” Tan says. “We give them an opportunity to talk about these things if they need to.”

In addition to helping heal psychological scars from the past, the project strives to prepare people for potential future events.

“Disaster is part of their world,” says Cohen Silver. “We hope to teach the families how to deal with the constant threat of disaster, but also how to cope with likely future exposure.”

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