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NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors

Accidental Counselor’s Perspective: Tips for Supporting Refugees

Traumatic events call into question basic human relationships. They breach the attachments of family, friendship, love and community. They shatter the construction of the self that is formed and sustained in relation to others. They undermine the belief systems that give meaning to human experience. They violate the victim’s faith in a natural or divine order and cast the victim into a state of existential crisis.

Judith Herman, 1992

Trauma as a result of previous experiences of organised violence and forced displacement can have a negative impact on refugees’ ability to rebuild their lives in Australia.

The complex challenges faced in Australia can in turn exacerbate trauma symptoms further complicating their capacity to heal, find a sense of belonging and integrate into society.

Learn more in the tips below about being an ‘Accidental Counsellor’ so you can safely and effectively support people from refugee backgrounds ‘on the spot’ who are experiencing distress or a crisis.

  • Recognising torture and refugee trauma responses to the complexity of resettlement and seeking protection

Trauma can lead to both a generalised increase in black and white thinking, as well as sensitivity to emotional states (feeling overwhelmed, angry, anxious or scared) that also increase black and white thinking. Learn to recognise these reactions as well as sadness, depression, and dissociation.

  • Effective communication

Essential communication skills are an important part of your accidental counsellor tool kit. The way you communicate is crucial to how safe and connected the person feels to you. Listen for content, emotions and strength of emotions, motives or needs that might not be obvious.

  • Empathic listening

Refugees often feel unsafe and have difficulties trusting others. As an accidental counsellor it is really important that you try to understand and connect with the person’s situation, to their pain and suffering. This will help the person feel safe and trust you more.

  • Active listening

Active listening is the primary skill of accidental counselling. It involves the use of non-verbal behaviours, voice and silence. It includes the skills of attentive body language, encouraging, reflecting back feelings, reframing the content and summarising major issues.

  • Asking appropriate questions

Questions should be designed to help the person clarify their own needs and wants; and provide you with information. Be aware that questioning is a common trauma trigger for refugees. Stay focused on present issues, rather than the past.

  • Containment skills

Containment is about providing a safe space and acting as a buffer against the person being overwhelmed by strong emotions, and bringing the person back to an emotional state where they feel in control. Containment focuses on orienting the person to the present and on the current difficulties, rather than the past.

  • Acknowledging and normalising

Acknowledging is about communicating your understanding of the person’s experience and the importance and/or legitimacy of that experience. Normalising according to the person’s worldview helps the person understand that their reactions and symptoms are common reactions to persecution, forced displacement and the complex interaction of challenges in Australia.

  • Grounding skills

Grounding techniques are simple, but powerful tools that help bring people back in touch with the present moment, to where they are and what they are doing, so they reduce their distress to a tolerable level and feel calmer. Learn how to ground a person if they dissociate.

  • Moving towards a resolution

Let the person lead but do steer them back to what you need to discuss. Focus on the present and current problems that can be addressed. Empower the person to discover their own solutions.

  • Building resilience

Help people identify their strengths and to stay focused on these, rather than the deficits. Keep the person focused on the present and what they can control right now. Assist the person to get organised and in control of what they can.

  • Identifying supports and referrals

Check that basic needs are met (eg. housing etc). Check the person’s social supports: family, friends, school staff, community and religious leaders. Check the services the person is accessing a GP, counselling if needed, etc.

  • Ending the session

Make sure person is contained, safe to leave and can get home safely. Clarify how the person can contact you after they leave, and how quickly and when you can respond. Provide information on other supports the person can access if distressed or in a crisis.

In conclusion, when people from refugee backgrounds in distress or in a crisis are provided timely assistance and support that is an empowering and positive experience, they are better able to continue their journey to recovering from torture and refugee trauma and rebuilding their lives in Australia.

Discover more about each of these concepts at our workshop ‘Accidental Counsellors: Responding to Refugee Trauma Related Behaviours and Distress’, led by Matthew Potts, STARTTS’ Trainer/Project Officer. Explore the event details at the following link.

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