The African nation Sierra Leone ended a gruesome civil war about 10 years ago, but the impact is still being felt. The scars, both physical and mental, remain prominently for surivors, and for many the experience has affected their mental health.
In January, New Lenox resident Daniel Moran traveled around the country, on the west coast of Africa, to try and bring mental health training to a nation that desperately needs it. In Sierra Leone, Moran and his colleagues weren't just there to help the survivors but primarily the local mental health practioners, who themselves sometimes needed help and training.
For instance, Moran told the story of Chimalsi, a 25-year-old who was a child combatant in the civil war. He was forced into the Revolutionary United Front when he was about 10 when the leaders of the RUF murdered his family in front of him and then sliced his arm open and grinded cocaine and gunpowder into the open wound. They gave him a machine gun and machete (the war resulted in about 10,000 amputees), and threatened his life if he did not serve the rebel cause.
Chimalsi, who still struggles with the trauma, joined the group of mental health professionals that received further training from Moran and his colleagues earlier this year.
“They were really receptive," Moran said. "These are the teachers and no one is training them on anything. It was a fantastic experience.”
Moran and two of his colleagues, Beate Ebert from Germany and JoAnne Dahl from Sweden, were invited by a non-governmental organization in Germany called Commit and Act, to teach in Sierra Leone. Moran was invited for his expertise in "acceptance and commitment therapy," a type of psychology used to overcome various emotional hurdles that includes evidence-based intervention and acceptance strategies. Moran has co-authored a book on the subject titled “ACT in Practice.”
“This is not the old-school psychology where you show people ink blots and talk about your dreams," he said. "But instead this gives people real world skills on how to deal with difficult emotions, thoughts and images and how to build up commitment towards the things that are important in their lives.”
For example, say you have a fear of speaking in public. ACT evaluates what makes you have that fear, what thoughts or emotions go through your mind and the things you have to deal with as you get up in front of that group to speak. If you understand your negative thoughts or fears, then you have an opportunity, according to ACT therapy, to overcome those negatives in your life.
They spent their first several days in the capital city Freetown, population 2.5 million. There they had a workshop of about 35 people, including people who worked in missions, Catholic nuns, priests and social workers. The training lasted five days.
After Freetown, Moran and Ebert drove into the bush to the town of Serabu, a much different experience with some roads covered with fallen logs and hospital guest rooms that seemed anything but safe. About half the people in the hospital have malaria or tuberculosis.
“I was told that about six people have died in this room since the beginning of the year," Moran said. "And it was only January."
Moran and his colleagues said the training went very well, and, recognizing the social workers in Sierra Leone wouldn't become proficient in a few days, they set up an online supervision program to allow continuing education. Ebert said in an email that even though there were challenges, the reception received was incredible, almost teaching the teachers to accept certain challenges, however miniscule compared to the devastating affects of the war.
“The hygienic circumstances are not at all to our standards," she said in the email. "Our stomachs are not used to the food and we get diarrhea ... not very romantic. What I gained was my flexibility to deal with circumstances like that and how easy the people are to connect with ... When I went to Serabu alone for the very first time in April 2010, it was like coming home for me—I was surprised about myself. This is a gift to feel at home in the world.”
Moran said he's grateful for the opportunity and hopes it will help make a difference not just for the people in the Sierra Leone, but across the globe.
"I really value the opportunity to reduce human suffering in this world," he said. "I know that I’m just one person, and there’s so much pain in the world, but we have to plant seeds in order to see something grow.”