Q&A with Scientific Committee member Megan Berthold

17-02-2016

Megan Berthold is a member of the Scientific Committee, which plays a key role in ensuring the IRCT Scientific Symposium is global, interdisciplinary and of the highest standard. As the additional call for abstracts comes to a close, Megan gives her impressions of the abstracts she has already reviewed, explains why an event like the Symposium is needed and gives an insight into how she got involved in the torture rehabilitation movement.

Q: What is your profession and where do you work?

I am a social worker and since 2011, an Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut's School of Social Work in West Hartford, Connecticut, USA.

Q: How long have you worked in this area of torture rehabilitation and human rights?

I first started to work with refugees in 1984 as a volunteer teacher in the Tarshi Palkhiel Tibetan Refugee Camp in Nepal. I began to work with survivors of the Cambodian genocide and other Southeast Asian trauma survivors in 1987 during my final Masters in Social Work internship.

Megan Berthold

I spent several years as a clinician and trainer in a camp for Vietnamese refugees in the Philippines and for displaced Cambodians on the Thai-Cambodian border. In 1998 I began to work as a clinician and researcher with the Program for Torture Victims in Los Angeles, California and I have been co-chairing the US National Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs' (NCTTP) Research and Data Project since 2008.

Q: How long have you worked in this area of torture rehabilitation and human rights?

I first started to work with refugees in 1984 as a volunteer teacher in the Tarshi Palkhiel Tibetan Refugee Camp in Nepal. I began to work with survivors of the Cambodian genocide and other Southeast Asian trauma survivors in 1987 during my final Masters in Social Work internship. I spent several years as a clinician and trainer in a camp for Vietnamese refugees in the Philippines and for displaced Cambodians on the Thai-Cambodian border. In 1998 I began to work as a clinician and researcher with the Program for Torture Victims in Los Angeles, California and I have been co-chairing the US National Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs' (NCTTP) Research and Data Project since 2008.

Q: How did you end up in this area? Was it something you specifically wanted to do or was it more of a coincidence?

I "blame" it all on my brother Tim! During my last year of college, Tim was teaching in a Tibetan refugee camp in Nepal. He sent me long fascinating letters every week detailing his experiences and encouraging me to come teach in the camp as a volunteer when I graduated. By the time I went there, Tim had moved to another part of Asia, but he had known I would find the work meaningful. I found my passion working cross-culturally with refugees who had fled persecution in their homelands.

Q: Can you give us an example of how you have seen your work make a difference?

As a long time clinician at the Program for Torture Victims in Los Angeles, I had the honour of accompanying hundreds of torture survivors on their journey of healing. Obtaining asylum in the US was a big part of that process for many. I will never forget a gay man I worked with who had been tortured by soldiers in Uganda and had seen his lover murdered by a mob. It took many hours of therapy for him to feel able to tell his story of persecution in his asylum hearing. I remember the day that I was sequestered waiting to provide expert witness testimony in his asylum hearing. I heard a shriek from down the hall and I rushed out of the waiting room. My client ran to greet me. He lifted me up off the floor as he informed me that the judge had granted him asylum. "I never have to go back," he told me. "I'm safe!"

Q: How has torture rehabilitation changed since you started?

We have learned a lot about the various methods of torture and the multifaceted effects on individuals, their families, their communities and society at large. I perceive that there is an increased appreciation for a holistic approach to rehabilitation, one that assesses risk and resilience, is community-based, and targets co-occurring mental and chronic physical health conditions.

In the US, clinical social workers have historically been under represented in the work of torture treatment centres. That has begun to change as we have trained more social workers to work with this population, building on the expertise of trauma-informed social workers and augmenting their ability to provide clinical services and forensic evaluations and testimony with survivors of torture.

The concept of vicarious or secondary trauma did not exist when I started in this field. We have come a long way towards understanding the secondary effects of human rights-based work in the area of torture rehabilitation (both in terms of vicarious trauma and vicarious resilience). Our sector also better understands the role of self-care (and cultural differences related to this concept) and how vital it is for rights-based practitioners and communities to be able to engage in this work over the long-term.

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the torture rehabilitation movement and survivors?


We need more rigorous research to examine the effectiveness of treatment. We need to know more about what interventions work, for whom, under what conditions, and when. As long as systemic oppression and torture continue to be widespread, there will be more survivors of torture (along with many who lose their lives). This is unacceptable and calls for increased and concerted efforts to address the structural and systemic forces that promote the perpetration of torture and other human rights violations.

We must go beyond local or national efforts to be successful. To me, this is one of the important benefits of having an international torture rehabilitation movement and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). That's why the IRCT Scientific Symposium in December 2016 could not come at a better time.

Efforts to secure adequate funding and policies to support rehabilitation efforts will be furthered by a strong grounding in science at the Symposium. I expect that among the important outcomes will be the dissemination of valuable clinical and research knowledge about effective interventions within the torture treatment field and related sectors.

In addition, best practices from around the world regarding how to promote and secure the right to rehabilitation will be shared, enhancing the possibility of furthering this right. The Symposium will also bring together diverse and knowledgeable stakeholders working at an advocacy and policy level to promote the realisation of the right to rehabilitation.

Q. As a researcher in this field, what are you most looking forward to at the Symposium?

I am most looking forward to learning from the experience of others within and outside the torture rehabilitation sector, particularly from those outside of the US whom I have little opportunity to interact with. I want to hear about the lessons they learned from what worked and did not work so well in their clinical and research efforts.

I am eager to engage in discussions about research ideas and expand my horizons about what is being done and what may be possible. I also find that the opportunity to network and share with others who have a passion for this work invigorates and refuels me, something that contributes to my self-care and my ability to continue this work over the long haul.

Q: What can we learn from exchanging with other health and human rights sectors who have also faced the challenge of evidencing, advocating for and securing the rights of victims or survivors of human rights violations?

We have a lot to learn about the strategies and tactics that other health and human rights sectors have found to be most effective in their related work. I have found the work of the US Human Rights Network (USHRN), for example, to be informative and inspiring about effective people-centred means of advancing human rights.

The USHRN was a key player in the US that facilitated the contribution of alternative reports by civil society organisations to the UN Committee against Torture on the right to rehabilitation and related issues in advance of the Committee's 2014 review of the US.

Q: Are interdisciplinary approaches important in making the right to rehabilitation a reality?

Interdisciplinary approaches are not only important, but are essential to the mission of making the right to rehabilitation a reality. Torture affects all domains of an individual's life and rehabilitation efforts must address all of these effects. Further, we must not only attend to the rehabilitation of individuals, but also must address families, communities and the broader society. Macro efforts to address impunity and the structural and systematic factors that perpetuate the practice of torture must be a robust part of our interdisciplinary work.

Q. What is your overall impression of the abstracts that you have reviewed so far?

I have been impressed by the breadth of approaches to rehabilitation in the symposium abstracts I have reviewed so far. They reflect the contribution of diverse voices from many parts of the world and from centres with different models.

They address a wide range of themes, including in part: multidisciplinary approaches to treatment, treatment efficacy, the treatment of children who have been tortured, group treatment, resiliency, the role of medico-legal documentation, the Istanbul Protocol, measuring psychosocial well-being, creative arts approaches to rehabilitation, unique challenges faced by centres working in countries that actively practice torture, human rights abuses in prisons, best practices regarding evaluation of torture rehabilitation programmes and attention to special populations of survivors (e.g., the elderly, children, disabled)

They also include voices that are less frequently heard in the literature and in the political debate within our sector and movement, such as torture survivors themselves and contributions from those outside of the torture rehabilitation sector including researchers, clinicians, policy makers, development specialists and funders.

 

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