Psychosocial mental health training and applied performance

Last week I attended a course in ‘Training Skills for Trainers of Psychosocial and Mental Health Workers in Countries Affected by Emergencies’ at the American University in Cairo.  The course was run by Dr Nancy Baron.  Nancy has provided consultation, assessment, training, program design and development, research and evaluation for UN organizations and international and local NGOs in community and family focused psychosocial, mental health and peace building initiatives for conflict and post-conflict countries.

In the six days we did everything from lectures to simulations to role-play to participatory presentations.  As a theatre practitioner it was interesting to see how role-play can be used in a purely educational rather than in a performance setting in a non cringe worthy style.

One of the most powerful messages that I learnt from the course was to always use a country’s or community’s own resources first.  Even though this sounds simple it is often forgotten when individuals and organisations rush to a country where there has been a disaster and impose their own country’s ‘systems’. These are often inappropriate and undermine existing community structures or traditional support systems.

We looked at the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings.  The IASC is the primary mechanism for inter-agency coordination of humanitarian assistance involving key UN and non-UN humanitarian partners.  These guidelines were created to ‘enable humanitarian actors and communities to plan, establish and coordinate a set of minimum multi-sectoral responses to protect and improve people’s mental health and psychosocial well-being in the midst of an emergency’.  The guidelines show a 4 stage intervention pyramid for mental health support- the 2nd stage being most relevant to the work that I do: Community and Family supports.  This layer focuses on aiding communities with social networks, communication and coping methods, educational and livelihood activities which is where an arts program could fit into.

During the course I was coincidentally reading the second chapter of James Thompson’s ‘Performance Affects- applied theatre and the end of effect’ which focuses on the politics of performance in war, disaster and crisis sites.  Although I find that this book has a tendency to show an extremely negative view on many aspects of applied performance there are many examples given of how many practitioners go into ‘disaster zones’ and do not respect cultural boundaries. When it comes to creating community programs it argues that we need to focus on cultural strengths.  Thompson suggests that:

‘We should approach a crisis from a position of respecting the paradoxical responses within communities rather than importing simple and singular means for their resolution’.

This particular chapter is dramatically entitled ‘The End of Story?’ in reference to the countless theatre projects that have forced people to tell their stories as a part of their ‘healing’ process and not respecting cultural beliefs of how that may affect a specific person or a whole community.

Instead Thompson talks about the importance of embracing local arts practices such as traditional dance etc and supporting them:

…’the focus for performance and cultural activists should be to enhance and support them.  We should accept their pragmatics rather than arrive with manuals of our own.’

This fits in nicely with IASC guidelines of supporting communities.

Interestingly the issue of forcing people to tell their stories is something that also came up in Dr Baron’s course and how many therapists used to do this although it is now strongly discouraged.  It reminded me of my own experiences, specifically of those working in prison and detention where participants are quite often either desperate to ‘tell their story’ or want ignore it completely.  Whilst teaching art in detention many participants who came to Australia by boat would quite often paint pictures of boats (even if the focus of the class had been on still life) and other participants would be furious at all the people drawing boats because they wanted to forget the boats.  It was a great example of how people who have been through similar situations will want to deal with them in very different ways- which is one of the challenges that a facilitator needs to always be aware of.

Although Thompson also states that he does not think that ‘theatre practitioners should only be interested in the performance of non-stories’ he does err on the side of caution of Boal techniques and Playback Theatre, which focus a lot of participants ‘issues’.  My argument here would be that anytime that I have witnessed either of these methods used have been in situations where participants were invited to tell stories and never forced.  Saying that I’m sure there have been time that this has not always been true.  I am also looking forward to reading more of Thompson’s book and I am possibly naively holding out for some stories of positivity.  I’m looking forward to the ‘Do’s’ rather than the ‘Don’ts’.

I have only touched upon the course in Cairo which taught me much much more, but in terms of applied performance and the work that Tell me a Tale does, being aware of the cultures we are working with are crucial.  I found this particularly whilst I was in Turkey.  Even through I’m half Turkish I found myself and my work being misunderstood so much and I think had I been working in collaboration with a Turkish theatre company the work would have been more accessible and thus more sustainable.  The practicality and financial questions that that throws up is something completely different- but is certainly something to think about.

With classmates on the Nile