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Bernadette McGrath

Photo Bernadette McGrath Portrait

Bernadette McGrath holds a BA in Social Work and Social Policy from the University of South Australia and has over 20 years’ experience leading and managing not-for-profit community organisations.  She first became involved in supporting asylum seekers in detention as a paralegal visiting Woomera in 2001 and was the Director of Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Service for 12 years until April 2014. In 2009 she was instrumental in setting up a specialist torture and trauma counselling service for asylum seekers detained on Christmas Island and later, in APODS in Inverbrackie and Port Augusta in South Australia. In 2013 she managed the establishment of the STTARS Overseas Services Program for torture and trauma survivors transferred to offshore detention and in 2014 left STTARS to take up the position of CEO of the new FASSTT-affiliated organisation, Overseas Services to Survivors of Torture and Trauma providing specialist counselling on Manus Island and Nauru. She brings to her role an understanding of the needs of torture survivors and the provision of rehabilitation services, experience in managing the strategic challenges and risks faced by torture and trauma services, and familiarity with the ethical and political complexities involved in this field of work.

Abstract – Clinical Master Class – 13 March 2019

This presentation, to be presented with Amritha Aparnadas, will discuss the practice of trauma informed counselling and group work with children of asylum seekers and refugees detained on Nauru and the outcomes achieved using the limited resources available on-island.

Trauma work with children on Nauru was initially developed in response to the deteriorating mental health of children on Nauru. OSSTT counsellors recognised that the conventional approach to counselling and group work within the Australia context would need to be adapted to meet the needs of this particular situation. It was evident that our focus needed to shift from trauma recovery to surviving ongoing trauma. The underlying aim was to establish therapeutic relationships with the children in order to assist them to create safety and develop skills as individuals and as a group to cope with the harsh living conditions, build resilience in the face of ongoing trauma and to acknowledge their journey as survivors.

The program used art and structured play therapy to help children manage their trauma reactions and create positive memories as anchors. Careful thought went into adapting the physical environment to provide a sense of immediate safety and belonging, using various sensory and visual techniques that were culturally and family appropriate. Participants were encouraged to give expression to the internal/external struggles of their experience of living in offshore detention. Some activities were family oriented to explore and share their struggles, strengths and resilience as a family and rebuild family relationships. Culturally appropriate activities that allowed children to remember and revive positive childhood experiences from their home countries were also incorporated. Outcomes achieved included a reduction in intrusive symptoms, improvement in their sleep, reduced frequency of nightmares, increased school attendance and an increase in positive coping and motivation.