Healing the wounds of trauma

Dr Caitlin Lance

I provide local staff with training on psychological trauma and recovery, attachment, and protective behaviours.

The image of Australian doctors and nurses working with needy patients in developing countries is one we’ve all seen. But what about those patients requiring mental health treatment, whose wounds might be less visible but equally as serious?

There are Australians working to help them too, like Dr Caitlin Lance, who graduated from ANU with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in psychology and a Doctor of Psychology (Clinical). She now works as an independent consultant for non-government organisations (NGOs) and businesses that support vulnerable women and children in India, Kenya and Uganda.

“I provide local staff with training on psychological trauma and recovery, attachment, and protective behaviours,” she says.

“The vast majority of the women and children being cared for in these places have been subjected to multiple human rights abuses or, at the very least, are at risk for such abuse due to the extreme poverty of their circumstances.

“For example, one case I worked on directly in India involved a young girl whose history we knew very little about. She was abandoned by her family at around 18 months of age and it was unclear who cared for her immediately after she was abandoned.

“Not surprisingly, years later she presented with social, emotional and cognitive difficulties consistent with disrupted attachment in early life. I’ve now worked with her on and off over two years and it’s been exciting to see her learn to express and manage her emotions, and to better understand and respond to the emotions of others.”

Dr Lance says her determination to work in this field began in the first year of her doctorate during a trip to India, where she saw children working as bonded slaves to pay off a family debt.

“Those images have stayed with me ever since, and shaped my buying habits and my choice of career.

“I have since met many people – men, women and children – who have worked as slaves. Some have been sold by family members, others have been tricked by slave traders who tell them they have a job lined up in another city. They work across many fields including sewing and manufacturing, domestic work and in the sex trade.

“The psychological trauma that results from this can be severe and treatment is hard to come by. Part of my work involves raising awareness that slavery is a reality and effective treatment programs are desperately needed.”

While her work takes her a long away from the comforts of Canberra, Dr Lance says her training for the field began during her time at ANU.

“In class we were taught the theoretical foundations of assessing and treating mental health problems, and then the theory came to life in the placement component of the degree.

“For my final placement I worked with refugee survivors of torture and trauma. In some ways this was a test run for me to see if I could cope with the clients’ stories and with working with extreme presentations. It was a huge learning curve and incredibly challenging, but it made me feel confident enough to brave working with trauma survivors in a developing country.”

The challenges continue, she says, characterising the work of the organisations she supports as “relentless, complicated and hard”. But she has no plans to change careers.

“I am constantly inspired by the local people I meet who are committed to caring for former slaves and trauma survivors in India. It is a privilege to be able to provide support and training to these amazing people.

“I’m also inspired by the survivors. Their histories tell of repeated abuse, separation from loved ones, betrayal and deprivation often from a young age. The resilience and courage displayed by people in the face of overwhelming circumstances is quite extraordinary.”

To make a contribution to Caitlin’s work or to find out more information, you can contact her oncaitlinlance@gmail.com