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Global Mental Health: The Center for Victims of Torture Brings Hope & Healing to Trauma Survivors

By: Darlene Lynch, Esq. Head of External Relations for CVT Georgia

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is experiencing another unprecedented humanitarian crisis: the global displacement of nearly 1% of all people on earth. Today, nearly 80 million people have been forced to flee their homes due to war, torture and persecution. Nearly 26 million are refugees—half of whom are children—living in often-desperate conditions as they wait to begin their lives again in a safe new country. And too many who seek safety are torture survivors.

Mary is one such survivor, a mother who was raising five children and running a farm with her husband in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) when civil war erupted. Mary was tortured and her husband was murdered. She managed to escape with her children, finally finding safety in a small town outside Atlanta. But the emotional wounds were deep, and her depression and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms made it hard to face each day and build a new life for her family.

Humanitarian crises—whether caused by human conflict or a lethal virus—take an immense emotional toll on individuals and their communities. Global mental health organizations like the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) know that if people are to regain their strength and re-engage in their communities after crises, the global health response must address the suffering of the mind and body, and the traditional view of global health must expand to include global mental health, as well.

Founded in 1985 in Minnesota, CVT is a global mental health leader dedicated to healing the wounds of torture and war and ending torture worldwide. CVT has established lifesaving mental health clinics in some of the world’s deadliest conflict zones, with its first international project in Guinea. There, staff extended care for refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia who had endured some of the worst atrocities in human history. CVT’s team provided specialized psychotherapy; trained health care workers; and combatted stigma through community outreach. Staff measured the change, not only in clients’ mental health symptoms, but in their social functioning, and the results were astonishing. Healing was possible, even for survivors of the most severe forms of trauma.

CVT now operates seven international centers in Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya and Uganda, and four domestic centers in Georgia and Minnesota. Its global staff of psychologists, social workers, physiotherapists, doctors and nurses work with clients to restore hope and healing to many thousands of survivors and family members each year.

In Georgia, CVT is based in Clarkston, the “most diverse square mile in the nation” and home to a large refugee community. Clients come from many different countries, including the DRC, Afghanistan and Guatemala, and speak more than a dozen languages. They share one thing in common: they have survived torture, war and other devastating humanitarian crises and require mental health care to heal.

Unfortunately, in Georgia as elsewhere, these services are extremely limited. Because emotional wounds are hidden and the stigma of seeking help is strong, the need is overlooked. Most Georgians are shocked to learn that thousands of survivors are rebuilding their lives in the state. Georgia has extended a lifeline to more than 60,000 refugees; CVT estimates that up to 44% of refugees in the U.S. are torture survivors.

CVT Georgia is the only mental health resource in the state dedicated to the rehabilitation of torture and war survivors. Drawing on CVT’s global experience, the team provides trauma-informed and culturally-adapted psychotherapy, intensive case management services, professional interpretation, and extensive training and community outreach.

The pandemic has caused CVT’s clinics, in Georgia and worldwide, to adapt. For many clients, like Mary, the fear and loss of this crisis have triggered memories of their torture and the times in their life when they did not know how they would survive. CVT ensured that they could continue therapy without interruption by transitioning quickly to telehealth. For clients who lost homes and jobs, support also meant delivering food, assisting with rent and more.

Just as in the early days in Guinea, we see that, despite all, healing is possible. In Mary’s words, “I feel more hopeful for the future. I am thankful for CVT’s services. I now know that someone cares about me.”


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