Since 2002, the Islamic militant group, Boko Haram, has killed more than 27,000 people and displaced nearly two million from their homes in the northeast regions of Nigeria. For victims of Boko Haram, recovery will be a lifelong process. Although it has been estimated that nearly 4.5 million people remain food insecure since the insurgency, it is the psychological toll that remains most difficult to measure and treat. With the help of organizations such as the U.N., the Neem Foundation and Tender Arts Nigeria, victims of Boko Haram in refugee camps are offered much-needed psychological treatment, including art therapy and training on how to reintegrate into society.
The Role of Therapy in Combating Trauma
Many victims of Boko Haram are taken as children and forced to both witness and commit acts of unspeakable violence, even to members of their own families. Girls as young as 11 are forced to marry and undergo rape. These girls are frequently used as suicide bombers, while the boys are trained as soldiers. The victims of Boko Haram are indoctrinated and occasionally radicalized themselves. For this reason, they are often shamed or feared upon their return, being referred to as epidemics.
The Neem Foundation highlights the importance of therapy to help victims recover from psychological trauma. After being kidnapped, witnessing their villages being attacked and their loved ones being killed, many people suffer severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Children also frequently suffer from cognitive delays and a proclivity towards violent outbursts.
The Neem Foundation brings individual and group therapy to refugee camps, visiting the camps on motorized tricycles called kekes around the country. Terna Abege, a clinical psychologist with the Neem Foundation, uses various methods of therapy, including visualization techniques called “thought-stoppers” to help victims of PTSD deal with disturbing flashbacks. The Neem Foundation and other nonprofits, such as MANI, seek to fill the gap in mental health care in any way they can, including offering therapy to suicidal victims over Twitter and WhatsApp.
How Art Therapy is Used in Nigerian Refugee Camps
Art therapy is also being integrated in refugee camps to help people sort through their mental trauma. The use of drawing and painting, among other art forms, can divert attention from negative thoughts and help people communicate in alternative ways. Art therapy can also help victims preserve their broken cultures and identities and express feelings that they cannot put into words.
In an emergency school set up by UNICEF in Cameroon, children gather in groups to draw as a form of art therapy. The trauma is evident in the scenes of violence and bloodshed that seem to flow naturally from the reservoirs of their memories. Under Boko Haram, children are beaten for crying at the violence they witness and not allowed to play with toys or make noise. When they return, they are often desensitized to violence and either act out violently or withdraw entirely. The art therapy helps the children to express what they have been suppressing and helps therapists identify those in most need of treatment.
Since 2013, Tender Arts Nigeria, created by Kunle Adewale, has used art therapy to help children suffering from physical and mental illnesses and impairments, such as cancer, Down Syndrome and behavioral problems. Since the war with Boko Haram, Tender Arts has reached out to victims of violence and radicalization. They use art therapy to assist in deradicalization efforts and to heal those traumatized from the violence.
Like the Neem Foundation, Tender Arts believes its efforts are not only important avenues of healing but important in helping people avoid radicalization or other areas of crime. More than 10,000 victims have already benefited from the art therapy offered by Tender Arts Nigeria. Because Boko Haram preys on the poor, young and uneducated, Adewale believes that valuing the arts and education is the best way to fight Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is forbidden.”
The Importance of Greater Access to Mental Health Care in Nigeria
The Neem foundation highlights the importance of increasing the availability of psychological treatment for refugees in Nigeria. There is a major deficit in mental health care in Nigeria, with only one mental health facility available in the northeast and only one therapist per 375,000 people. The Neem Foundation is working to implement programs that will train more people to offer therapy. They now offer an intensive nine-month program in Maiduguri to train lay counselors who can work more immediately as therapists for the traumatized population.
Although the road to recovery is a long one for victims of Boko Haram’s violence, the Neem Foundation believes in the need to act quickly to prevent more severe mental illnesses from developing. They are working to spread awareness about mental health and want to gain more governmental support for the mental health crisis in the coming years. In the meantime, as more therapists become available throughout Nigeria, it is their hope that these victims can recover and start to live normal lives again.
– Christina Laucello