MU center to aid Asian youth hurt by tsunami

Local experts deal with “second wave” of trauma in trip to region.
Thursday, January 6, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:38 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Syed Arshad Husain has a well-earned reputation for going into war-torn and disaster-stricken areas. He’s been to Pakistan, India, Turkey, Jordan and Kuwait. He’s been to Kosovo 14 times and Bosnia 25 times.

If the financial support comes through, he and a five- to six-member team from MU’s International Center for Psychosocial Trauma will leave Jan. 18 or 19 and travel to Malaysia and Sri Lanka, and then on to Pakistan, to deal with what could be called the second wave of trauma for the child survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Husain’s special interest is helping children deal with the after-effects of war or natural disasters – the kind of long-term trauma that makes child earthquake survivors want to keep their feet off the ground. After the Gujarat earthquake in India that killed almost 100,000 people five years ago, Husain observed in his work there that children developed a phobia of the ground.

“Whenever they put their feet on the ground, they felt shakes and vibrations,” Husain said. “It would frighten them, and they felt another earthquake was coming.”

What the child survivors of the Dec. 26 tsunami will experience could be similar, except their fears may specifically focus on water.

At the moment, the tsunami survivors are just struggling to make it through each day, Husain said. But as food, water, and other necessities come in and people begin to rebuild their lives, the psychological effects will become very intense, he said.

“Once all this passes with time they have to confront their losses,” he said. “That’s when depression, sadness, hopelessness and a total sense of loss will set in.”

“That’s where our role comes,” Husain said. “We have to help them go through this bereavement and help them capture hope for the future.”

Without intervention, survivors can develop post-traumatic stress syndrome and suicidal tendencies, he said. Children, such as the survivors of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, may become hyper-vigilant, hyperactive and unable to concentrate on schoolwork.

Husain, the chief of child psychiatry at MU, said he was still putting together the finances and the team for the trip. He hoped the university and two non-profit organizations — Mercy Malaysia, a Malaysian relief organization, and Doctors Worldwide, a U.K.-based charity – would provide the financial backing.

By Wednesday, he had already asked two members of the team from the International Center for Psychosocial Trauma to join him — MU psychologist and professor emeritus Wayne Anderson and local psychologist Barbara Bauer. The center, which Husain founded in 1994 as a response to the Bosnian war, focuses on training mental health professionals and teachers to work with psychologically traumatized children.

Bauer said she will go, her 14th such trip. She has been to Bosnia, Kosovo, , Russia, Jordan and Turkey. She has paid out of her own pocket to join the team in the past when donations from various nonprofit organizations and individuals have fallen short. Bauer hopes that’s not the case this time.

“We can use a lot more donations,” she said.

On her first trip to Bosnia, she was afraid because the country was in the middle of a civil war. “But the fear goes away after awhile,” she said.

The team’s first stop could be Kuala Lumpur. There, a “training the trainers program” will be set up to teach people to train others to help traumatized children. Similar trips to Bosnia — 25 over a five-year period — with a team that grew from two to 17 members were a great success, Husain said.

“We trained 2,000 teachers who had an impact on 20,000 children,” he said.

He hopes that his team will be able to train 50 to 100 people at a time in the stricken region.

Teaching locally-based providers of psychiatric care is crucial in areas that have very few. India, for example, with a population of 1 billion, has fewer than 4,000 psychiatrists, and Indonesia with 240 million people has fewer than 400, according to the World Health Organization.

“In contrast, the United States has 260 million people, and there are 52,000 psychiatrists,” Husain said.

Born in Delhi, Husain has his own, keen childhood memories of violence. As a 9-year-old, he witnessed the religious riots that accompanied India’s partition in 1947. He and his family became refugees and moved to the newly created Muslim state, Pakistan. Although he said he was resilient enough not to be affected by what he saw, the experience helped him connect with children and influenced his life’s work.

Children of trauma “have intrusive thoughts, nightmares of events, flashbacks, and hyper vigilance,” he said. “They are constantly watching for any other catastrophe.”

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