Michael Wessells (KNFP 4), Professor of Psychology, Program on Forced Migration and Health, Columbia University, New York, New York.
This article was originally published in the December 2006 issue of the KFLA Newsletter.
Mike Wessells’ life calling is ”working in the invisible parts of the world where people’s basic rights are denied.” As a psychologist, his concern is for the mental health of people following armed conflict and natural disasters.
Currently, Mike co-chairs a United Nations Task Force on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings. The task force has consulted practitioners with on-the-ground experience, as well as U.N. officials and donors, and is publishing guidelines on mental health and pyscho-social support for victims in volatile settings.
”We have had significant violations of the ’do no harm’ rule,” he says. ”These guidelines are a milestone for the field. Now, when agencies ask how to work with refugees, should they take a clinical versus a holistic approach, for example, we have an answer.”
Mike knows first-hand about what works in the field from his experiences in war-torn countries from Angola to Afghanistan. In particular, as the Senior Child Protection Specialist for the Christian Children’s Fund, he facilitates community processes to re-integrate children who have been abducted or joined armed groups.
”Half of the fighters in Liberia in 2002 were young people, that's increasingly true of armed conflicts worldwide,” he points out. ”After the conflict stops, the countries are left with large numbers of youth with no education, employment, or useful skills. These young people have a tendency to stay in armed groups or turn to crime. The challenge is: How do you, on a large scale, enable tens of thousands of children to embrace peace and social justice and return to civilian life?”
Mike’s strategy is community-based and culturally grounded, and focuses as much on the broader community as on the children themselves. For example, he facilitates a process allowing community members to define a needed project, such as building a school or creating a health post. Mike then works with local leaders to create work crews comprised of both the armed groups and the victims.
”One of best ways to reduce inter-group tensions is to cooperate on shared goals,” he says, and then adds, ”Other things need to happen, though. It has to be holistic, not focus just on education, health, or commerce.”
Mike recounts a process he helped facilitate in Sierra Leone.
”A lot of girls who have been in armed groups have been sexually abused. They are viewed as ’damaged.’ Many of the girls themselves will say they can’t earn a livelihood or go back and get an education because they’ve picked up ’bad spirits.’
”We worked with the local healer who conducted a cleansing ritual. At the end, the healer dressed the girls in white, wrapped them in a red sash, and presented them to the village as clean. Afterwards, the girls said their minds felt cleansed and the community accepted them again.”
Mike fervently believes that those involved in post-conflict reconstruction need to employ local practices and standards of success, rather than impose their own agenda. ”I can be the Great White Knight, or I can be an enabler and facilitator. The latter is a thousand times more effective.” He stresses, ”Leadership is respecting other people’s culture and the wisdom and resilience of local people even under extreme conditions.”