Overcoming Trauma and Stigma

5 minutes read time
Community development facilitators who are working in Doe Community as part of the USAID-supported Liberia Association of Psychosocial Services, from left: Ma-Watta Dukuly, Mardea Taylor, Shiaka M. Sannoh, and Victoria Kromah.
Community development facilitators who are working in Doe Community as part of the USAID-supported Liberia Association of Psychosocial Services, from left: Ma-Watta Dukuly, Mardea Taylor, Shiaka M. Sannoh, and Victoria Kromah. / Jessica Benton Cooney, USA

Overcoming Trauma and Stigma

Ma-Watta Dukuly is a study in resilience. Like many fellow Liberians, over the past few decades Ma-Watta experienced violence, displacement and disease  --  but they did not break her spirit. Now, she draws on her past struggles to help her countrymen.
For Ma-Watta, mental recovery had been elusive for some time.

“I was so depressed that I might have wanted to kill myself,” said Ma-Watta. “Instead, now I speak with my fellow Liberians and help them overcome their trauma.” 

Ma-Watta Dukuly is a USAID-supported community development facilitator who is providing psychosocial support in Doe Community, Liberia for those who were impacted by the Ebola crisis. / Jessica Benton Cooney, USAID

Ma-Watta Dukuly is a USAID-supported community development facilitator who is providing psychosocial support in Doe Community, Liberia for those who were impacted by the Ebola crisis. / Jessica Benton Cooney, USAID

In 2001, during the second Liberian civil war, rebels entered Ma-Watta’s hometown in Kolahun District, Lofa County, and shot the women, including many who were pregnant, and men — including her brother and uncle, who were killed in front of her. They torched houses with many of her friends and family members chained inside.

Ma-Watta had three children, aged three, six and nine, but managed to flee with just one of them to Sierra Leone, walking three days to reach the border. Ma-Watta’s mother took the other two children to Guinea.

Shiaka M Sannoh, trained in mental health counseling by a U.S. government program as a refugee in Sierra Leone during the Liberian civil war, is helping restore relationships in Doe Community. / Jessica Benton Cooney, USAID

Shiaka M Sannoh, trained in mental health counseling by a U.S. government program as a refugee in Sierra Leone during the Liberian civil war, is helping restore relationships in Doe Community. / Jessica Benton Cooney, USAID

At the refugee camp in Sierra Leone, a psychosocial counselor of a U.S government supported mental health program overheard Ma-Watta grieving in her tent. They recruited Ma-Watta for the program, and she joined more than 4,000 others for mental health counseling. At the camp, Ma-Watta also earned her high school education and trained for two years in mental health and counseling. It was that training, she said, that gave her the fortitude to return to Liberia in 2006.

After reuniting with her children, Ma-Watta counseled other survivors in her community suffering from depression and war-related trauma.

Then, in 2014, Ebola struck.

There were 10 Ebola-related deaths in Ma-Watta’s village. Ma-Watta was tapped to provide counseling services to those affected by the deaths. She was recruited by the USAID-supported Liberia Association of Psychosocial Services, which recognized her past training background and practical experience in individual and group counseling.

Since then, she has continued to provide support to those still recovering from the impact of Ebola in Doe Community, outside the capital of Monrovia.

A memorial plaque honoring those who died from Ebola in 2014 in Kakata City, Margibi County, Liberia. / Jessica Benton Cooney, USAID

A memorial plaque honoring those who died from Ebola in 2014 in Kakata City, Margibi County, Liberia. / Jessica Benton Cooney, USAID

Dispelling Stigma and Overcoming Trauma

The Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia was unprecedented. By January 2016, nearly 29,000 individuals had been infected, over 10,000 of whom survived. While mortality rates were dramatic, there was a sizeable number who were infected but survived, including more than 1,558 in Liberia alone.

Returning home became both a gift and a burden, however, as many survivors were excluded from their family, professional and social lives. Some lost jobs, faced divorce, or were driven out of their houses altogether. Exposure to death in the Ebola treatment units and stigma in their communities induced post-traumatic stress and depression among Ebola survivors, orphaned children, and families who lost loved ones.

From left: Thomas Sieh and Milton Karmen, who both lost parents to Ebola are now off the streets in Doe Community, Liberia, back in school, and finding new hope for the future with the help of USAID-supported counseling and mentoring. / Jessica Benton Cooney, USAID

From left: Thomas Sieh and Milton Karmen, who both lost parents to Ebola are now off the streets in Doe Community, Liberia, back in school, and finding new hope for the future with the help of USAID-supported counseling and mentoring. / Jessica Benton Cooney, USAID

The crisis-response teams left after the last case of Ebola was recorded, but USAID-psychosocial trained counselors such as Ma-Watta are taking the leading role in the psychosocial response in communities in five counties across the country, including Doe.

Using their community-based relationships, the counselors identify at-risk individuals and groups. They look for people who are having trouble making relationships, holding a job, living on the streets and those who are turning to illegal activities and violence as a means to cope with the stigma.
A range of skill-building sessions facilitate apprenticeships and new livelihood opportunities that help restore dignity and optimism.

Naomi* was referred to USAID-supported psychosocial services after her husband died of Ebola. She’s now a successful water vendor, a business that is helping her support her two small children. / Jessica Benton Cooney, USAID

Naomi* was referred to USAID-supported psychosocial services after her husband died of Ebola. She’s now a successful water vendor, a business that is helping her support her two small children. / Jessica Benton Cooney, USAID

Naomi* was sobbing in her kitchen after her husband of 18 years died of Ebola, when she was spotted by a USAID program facilitator and referred to a counseling group.

Fear over how she was going to feed and house her 2-year-old twins had kept her awake at night, as her landlord was threatening eviction, as he suspected she was also infected by Ebola.

“Every time I saw an ambulance, my heart raced with fear that they were coming for me,” Naomi said.

Referred to a counseling group at the USAID-supported psychosocial center in Doe, Naomi became optimistic about her future, and her family started to accept her again. With skills gained in the problem solving course, Naomi has become a successful water vendor, a business she runs in front of her house.

By partnering with community development leaders like Ma-Watta, USAID is helping individuals like Naomi recover from the debilitating impact of Ebola. Rather than let stigma and grief impede their future, USAID is empowering survivors to overcome their trauma and find renewed optimism.

About the Author: Jessica Benton Cooney is the Communications Specialist of USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance.

Editor's Note: This entry originally appeared in USAID's 2030: Ending Extreme Poverty in This Generation publication on Medium.com.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.