Monday, March 12, 2007

The National Workshop on Mental Health Worker Standards and Nomenclature. Did Somebody Yawn?

Udated March 16
Local Weather: Days alternating between overcast and sunny. Some light rain. Temps in high 90’s and humid in the day on sunny days, upper 80’s on cloudy days. Upper 70s and humid at night. Precipitation: Approximately 3 inches total rainfall since mid November.

Granted, it’s not the “hot new topic in development,” like entrepreneurial and business empowerment, and it’s not easily understood, like community development, and it’s not even all that interesting, like building partnerships for creating important new training curricula. But Liberians on the front lines of the mental health battle will tell you it is a critical necessity if this country is going to survive and prosper. Let me tell you about it.

All of you know that Liberia is a post war country, a nation and a people just three and a half years from 14 years of conflict that saw the country virtually destroyed, its people exposed to horror and heart break, and ten percent of its population dead. No one has escaped exposure to traumatic events, and practically everyone still lives with the effects. You see it everywhere in the ways Liberians act toward one another. Yes, they are amazing survivors. Yes, many have overcome. Yes, the country is full of heroes. But there are open wounds. High levels of mistrust, dishonesty, opportunism, rage, alcohol and drug abuse, family violence, sexual abuse and prostitution permeate this culture.

As a result, since the mid 1990’s, NGO’s have been offering untold numbers of brief “psychosocial training programs” of two or three weeks length to Liberians and sending them back into cities and villages to provide what they might call “trauma healing,” or “psychosocial counseling,” or even “Training of Trainers,” which means people with virtually no training go on to train others in all kinds of mental health interventions. You may imagine the psychological and spiritual chaos that has resulted.
Throughout Liberia, there are thousands of men and women with almost no training, calling themselves “Counselors”, “Trauma Specialists”, or “Social Workers.” Some of them are talented and dedicated, possessing natural skills to help others and the wisdom to know their limitations. Many do not. Too many are on the field, employed by NGOs, opening wounds, retraumatizing victims, and giving the worst kind of advice. Too many of these poorly trained workers do more harm than good.

This is where the National Mental Health Task Force comes in. Mandated by the Ministry of Health, we have been working for the last year and a half to come up with minimum training standards and appropriate titles or nomenclature for these workers. Standards are necessary to insure professional training, and we also want to make sure that when one calls himself or herself a "social worker" or "counselor," people can trust they are being served by individuals with extensive traing and field experience. The Ministry of Health hopefully will adopt these standards and make further recommendations to the legislature to put them into law.

Last week we reported our suggestions to some of the heads of these large NGOs and workers in the field for their reaction. It was well attended, and we went away feeling like our task force is making a conversation happen that is long over due and may someday substantially improve the quality of care people are receiving all across Liberia.

As I say, this kind of work is not “sexy development work.” Most people’s eyes glaze over when I start talking about my work with is group. I mean, who but a shrink type or a geek would care about “mental health standards and nomenclature?” But it is necessary for this country’s recovery. It is peacebuilding work-- it is Kingdom work.

The workshop. After our report, the paricipants divided into subgroups to give feedback and suggestions. Here one group reports.

They loved us.

Yers Trooly, appointed "MC" getting ready to yank someone for going too long.