On Caring for Self: A Critical Part of Peacebuilding

The people who gravitate towards the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, especially towards its courses and workshops on psychosocial trauma, often have experienced traumatizing situations. They may even come in the hope of addressing their own post-traumatic stress disorder or burnout.

Sarah Crawford-Browne of South Africa was one of these people. She took Strategies in Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) Level I in August 2005, followed by STAR Level II in April 2006.

In a first-person piece posted on the CJP website September 7, 2012, she tells part of her story:

One day, I witnessed a double murder/assassination whilst looking out my living room window. I had just spent five years working with trauma in Sierra Leone, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uganda and Sudan. Now I was head of service at a trauma center in Cape Town.

The center runs a 24-hour response service to crises in the city, so when I saw the murders, I grabbed my neon-colored response jacket and my response backpack and went down to help. I was involved the full night. Due to the demands of my resource-challenged center, I went right on to work the next day without sleeping.

This incident proved to be the tipping point for Crawford-Browne. She had worked at the Cape Town trauma center for ten months, and she continued working there for another eight months in an effort to fulfill the center’s contractual obligations. But she began to exhibit classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

I woke up at about 1 a.m. completely confused. My mind swirled in a series of primitive emotions. Nothing was making much sense. The emotions were not linked to language and I could not access words. Eventually at about 5 a.m., I thought, “I am going mad.” And that thought somehow linked me to the psycho-education pamphlets that I’ve given out so frequently which list common experiences of people who have witnessed violence. One of them is feeling like you’re going mad. I then realized that I was traumatized.

Drawing on her training as a trauma expert and clinical social worker, Crawford-Browne knew she needed to ease the “hyper-arousal” that is typical of PTSD by unwinding regularly and removing herself from situations that set her off.

Unwinding required that I ground myself, consciously getting back in contact with my center, getting back into my body. What specifically helped me to do this was listening deeply to music, meditation, knitting, journaling – activities where I could be engaged whilst unwinding the layers of caught-up energy. Being in spaces where I could be alone and have quiet, not noise, helped, too. Sometimes it meant creating a small ritual to divert energy that was distressing. It took about eight months until the PTSD abated.

As active practitioners in the fields of peace and justice, most of the faculty and staff of CJP have themselves faced the challenges of “burnout.” After the arrival of Ron Kraybill as a faculty member in 1995, the curriculum of CJP expanded to include recognizing the signs of burnout and addressing it, as well as improving day-to-day interactions. In Kraybill’s words:

It took 15 years of full-time work with peace initiatives before it dawned on me that it is not lack of skill or money that most severely limits the organizations I know best. Rather it is the struggle of staff in those organizations to get along with each other and with other organizations around them, compounded by fatigue and burnout of individuals in them.

Kraybill developed a course called “Disciplines for Transforming the Peacebuilder” and drafted a book titled Self-Care for Caregivers. Restorative techniques taught by Kraybill, embraced and enlarged upon by other faculty members since the 1990s, include an afternoon nap, regular exercise, yoga, meditation with breath work, having mentors or counselors, adequate sleep, involvement in a faith community, relaxing activities such as dancing, playing music and doing art, keeping a journal, and reserving time for quality relationships with family members and friends.

In 2004, CJP brought David Brubaker aboard as the faculty member focused on teaching ways to build “healthy” organizations, where leaders and team members have the self-awareness and skills necessary to address inevitable conflicts in a positive manner.

In the 2013 Summer Peacebuilding Institute, out of 20 courses offered, four pertained to understanding psychosocial trauma and nurturing resilience for sustained peacebuilding. Toward the end of one of these seven-day courses, Al Fuertes told his students: “We cannot give what we don’t have. Who heals the healers?”

Projecting to the future, CJP calls in its current five-year strategic plan for continued emphasis on “personal, relational, and spiritual well-being.”