In Nepal, UNICEF helps heal earthquake’s mental wounds

May 09, 2016

By Mallika Aryal

Nuwakot, Nepal —Kamala Rai, 27, and a mother of four, had just woken up from a nap with her new born son late morning on 25 April 2015 in Charghare, Nuwakot, east of the capital Kathmandu.  Saturday is laundry day in the Rai household, so she left her sleeping baby inside the house and went out to gather her three girls so they could help her wash dirty clothes.  Suddenly, the ground started shaking violently. Her first thought was her sleeping baby inside the house. She screamed and ran inside.

“After that everything went all dark,” Kamala said, as she sat inside her makeshift home on a late winter afternoon.

Her temporary shelter has tin roof and tarpaulin for walls. The floor is cold and it is dark inside as she chops vegetables for dinner.

“When I gained consciousness at the hospital, they told me that my little baby boy was gone,” she said, with tears in her eyes. “He was taken by the earthquake.”

Following the earthquake, Kamala spent several weeks in the hospital with a head injury.

“I just didn’t feel right, I had no will to live,” she said.

Returning home provided no comfort either.

She had not only lost her child, but also her home and her ability to work. In addition, she had three traumatised girls and a husband who was disabled during the earthquake and was unable to work to provide for the family.

Kamala’s oldest 10-year-old Karuna was the most traumatised. A bubbly dancer, who used to participate in school activities, had become withdrawn, quiet and had stopped dancing.

“Earlier, Karuna had made us proud by winning all kinds of local awards for her dance skills,” said Arjun Prasad Aryal, principal of Mandhredhunga Primary School in Charghare. “We thought she would never come back from this trauma.”

Kamala felt equally lost.

“She was like a ghost,” said Gita Dahal, a social mobiliser in her community. 

Having known Kamala’s family for long time, Gita wanted to help them, but realised early on that the family’s mental trauma was very severe and that she lacked knowledge and training to provide them with psycho-social counseling.

Fortunately, UNICEF-supported organization Umbrella Foundation, along with Transcultural Psychosocial Organization, conducted a seven-day training for social mobilisers on psycho-social issues in Nuwakot. Gita signed up for the course.

To ensure that children and their parents recover properly from emotional stress of the earthquakes and to help enhance their resilience, UNICEF, with partners is supporting community-based services including psychosocial counselling and specialized mental health care. 2650 social workers, teachers and health professionals have been trained on providing basic psychosocial support and psychological first aid in the 14 most affected districts.

“The training helped me understand that the psychosocial issues and mental trauma take a long time to heal,” she said. “Because Kamala had gone through so much, I knew I had to be patient and keep working with her.”

When Gita approached Kamala in the beginning, she refused to see her.

“Kamala would sit and stare at space for a long time, would not work and would cry all the time,” she said. “It was only after a few attempts that she opened up.”

When the ice was broken, Kamala also realised that it was comforting to talk to Gita who could help her.

“At the hospital, people kept telling me to let go, to move on, but it was not possible to do that so easily,” said Kamala.

As time went on, and as she had more sessions with Gita, she slowly began to realize that there were others like her whose lives were disrupted by the earthquake.

“There are so many other families who have lost, have suffered tragedy,” said Kamala.

Nearly a year on after the earthquake, life is still hard for Kamala’s family, but she has come a long way. She recently participated in a sexual harassment workshop, and enjoyed being a part of something new. “I would like to go out, participate in more workshops like that,” she said.

Kamala is also ready to move on in life. She wants to bring in a regular income so that she can take better care of her children.

“I can’t do physical work anymore because I can’t bend and lift like I could before the earthquake, but I am good with hands and can learn sewing, stitching, candle and lamp-making,” she said.

Her progress has had a positive impact on her daughter as well. Over the months, Karuna has been slowly bouncing back and her teachers hope to see the bubbly, dancing Karuna return soon, winning awards and making her teachers and family proud again. 

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