If a child comes to a refugee camp profusely bleeding, medical attendants would rush to stop the blood with bandages, whereas “invisible wounds”, such as adolescent mental health, are often not treated at all. Out of sight, out of mind. It is often second nature and, at times, difficult to confront issues that aren’t in plain sight. This dynamic patterns many issues in our world; one such issue is mental health.
Post-conflict mental health is also of personal interest to me. I am currently interning at UNDP’s HIV, Health, and Development Group and have always been passionate about health, specifically health as a means of individual empowerment. In the push for youth participation in peacebuilding, mental health cannot be overlooked when designing these programs. It is hard to engage someone in peacebuilding initiatives when their basic health needs are not being met. In this light, peacebuilding can and should take shape in a variety of ways, such as ones that address both personal and group needs.
In order to begin a sustainable healing process in post-conflict societies, internal trauma must be addressed. In fact, psychologists and psychiatrists who have worked in post-trauma regions have found that these health effects can reverberate into larger, unforeseen social consequences. For instance, an adolescent’s internal distress, which can manifest as anxiety, depression, and PTSD, can be so deep that it is actually passed on to the next generation. Intergenerational violence can be observed in “societies transformed by long-term conflict can become engaged in highly (self)-destructive political dynamics in which they become locked in unending conflict with their hated enemies. In such cases, reconciliation will not be achieved through the signing of a peace treaty alone but will also require adjustments at a more fundamental psychological level.”1 Despite mental health being a primary driver of inner peace and outer productivity, it is too often neglected in humanitarian aid and peacebuilding efforts.
It was with the significance of mental health in mind that I started researching peacebuilding initiatives and came across art therapy. Art therapy essentially consists of using creative expression to visually communicate thoughts and feelings that are too painful to put into words. Creative activities have been employed in psychotherapy and counseling because of its ability to help youth “explore emotions and beliefs, reduce stress, resolve problems and conflicts, and enhance their sense of well-being.”2 Art therapy is a particularly effective approach to youth peacebuilding as its activities offer inner relief and builds social cohesion. In this way, youth are able to build peace from within as well as with their peers, as they confront similar narratives in a supportive group setting.
A powerful example of this is the Art and Culture Centre in the Shatila refugee camp. Along with other artists of different ages and nationalities, Ma’amar took part in a three-day cultural festival organized by the NGO Basmeh and Zeitooneh, on the occasion of the first anniversary of its Art and Culture Centre in the Shatila refugee camp. “Even though she is in pain, she’s still dancing!” Ma’ammar El Jasem says, standing proudly next to his creation: a ballerina wrapped in metal wires.3 At such a young age, the 13-year-old Syrian sculptor may not be fully aware that he’s representing the power of survival. Visual creation can allow youth to explore repressed feelings and memories that 1) they may not have the language to express or 2) without having to be triggered through talking about such charged experiences. In both cases, visual expression can offer subconscious mental relief and, through enhanced wellbeing, a readiness to engage peacefully with others.
Another form art therapy is group mural painting, which can promote group peacebuilding through collective healing. For example, in the Za’atari Camp in northern Jordan, a group of Syrian refugees partnered with a local Jordanian artist, Yusra Ali, to create a mural (pictured above) that depicted what they missed most about their homes in Syria in the colored shapes.4 This type of activity can give both mental relief through visually acknowledging feelings of sadness and closure to peacefully move forward.
Peacebuilding efforts must start from within and, for many, art therapy is a promising place to start. If a person is not at a secure place within, it is hard to constructively engage with others. Moving forward I would love to see and, maybe one day, help facilitate art therapy projects such as this.
Ashley Andreou is a citizen of Canada and Cyprus. Originally from Vancouver, she is currently living in Los Angeles while she attends Occidental College. Here, she is studying Biochemistry along with Public Health as a part of her Undergraduate Degree. While attending Occidental, she has engaged in a number of health initiatives ranging from the local to the international sphere. For the past three years she has worked in a lab partnered with Caltech, helping develop a virus-like particle that acts as a heparin reversal agent. During the past year, she has worked for Vancouver Prostate Centre doing protein purification for a cancer immunotherapy research project. She has also worked in Hong Kong, conducting independent research out of Hong Kong University of Science and Technologynt. At the UN, she works for UNDP’s HIV, Health, & Development Group. Here, she is supporting the Task Team in rolling out the sustainable development goals, researching the linkages between gender, health and environment, and helping analyze the impact of the reduced UNAIDS funding on the implementation of the UNAIDS Strategy. Follow Ashley on Twitter: @@
1 “Peace Building Initiative - Trauma, Mental Health & Psycho-Social Well-Being.” 2016. Accessed October 31. http://www.peacebuildinginitiative.org/index2d5b.html?pageId=1779.
2 Malchiodi, Cathy A. 2011. Handbook of Art Therapy, Second Edition. Guilford Press.
3 “Art Serves as a Meeting Point for Youth Affected by Conflict | United Nations Development Programme in the Arab States.” 2016. Accessed October 31. http://www.arabstates.undp.org/content/rbas/en/home/ourwork/crisispreventionandrecovery/successstories/art-serves-as-a-meeting-point-for-youth-affected-by-conflict.html.
4 “Art with Syrian Refugees: The Za’atari Project | Joel Artista.” 2016. Accessed October 31. https://joelartista.com/syrian-refugees-the-zaatari-project-jordan/.