The situation is particularly difficult for our Ethiopian colleagues, with uncertain futures. Staff with relatives and loved ones who remained in Tigray, where there is a complete communication blackout, have yet to receive any news. Many have not heard from a number of their colleagues either.
“Some of them were companions for years, and from one day to the next, they just disappeared, fled to other towns or neighboring countries without any notice,” says Kaz. “Every day, our Ethiopian colleagues see all these people who have been displaced because of the fighting and who are now living in small settlements around them, huddled together in very bad conditions. And, of course, before the fighting started, COVID-19 had already complicated their lives, preventing most children from going to school and increasing the number of unemployed people that they and their families have to support financially.”
“I cannot be happy, but I can be a bit happier”
In response to the crisis, MSF is providing mental health support to help health workers cope with the trauma they have experienced. The assistance ranges from phone calls to physical and psychological activities. In Ethiopia, as in any context of fighting and violence, our teams have benefited from group and individual sessions to aid them in better managing their daily stress.
The group workshops on stress management usually take place in five steps. First, participants are asked to make an inventory of all the things that cause them stress. They can be personal concerns, such as family issues, or broader ones, like the ongoing violence. Then the group chooses the most important stress factor they want to discuss. It can be overwhelming to think about multiple problems at the same time, so we ask them to focus in on one to develop specific coping strategies for it. The third step is to think about what is still functioning well.
“Our intention is not to push the problems aside, but rather to tell the whole story,” says Kaz. “Of course, this does not undo all the dramatic incidents, but looking at the whole story, including all the things that are still functioning well, allows them to be more inclined to look at their problems from a solution-oriented perspective. It takes time, effort and courage but people usually manage to switch, as they do not want to be stuck in unhappiness. At the end of the day, they end up thinking ‘I cannot be happy, but I can be a bit happier’”.
The last two steps involve thinking about how to improve the situation and make an action plan. These elements are essential to mitigating the jarring impact of the continuous and destabilizing violence. Reaching out to friends and colleagues, not only to talk about problems but also to share very simple things in their everyday lives, greatly reduces their stress and strengthens their sense of community.