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Trauma Mental Health

Program launches online trainings on best practices for working with trauma survivors

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This  week, faculty of Stanford’s Human Rights in Trauma Mental Health Program (HRTMHP), of which the Center for Human Rights and International Justice is a core collaborator, will launch a series of online trainings focused on best practices for working with survivors of severe trauma through a partnership with the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da'esh/ISIL (UNITAD). Our team is honored to have the opportunity to support UNITAD’s crucial mandate of holding the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) accountable by collecting, preserving, and storing evidence of acts committed in the period when ISIL operated with impunity within large swathes of territory in Iraq. UNITAD is collecting evidentiary material, including witness statements, of the grave abuses carried out by members of ISIL in Iraq—acts that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

Testimony gathered by UNITAD has revealed egregious crimes committed against populations formerly under ISIL control, including executions, torture, amputations, ethno-sectarian attacks, rape and sexual slavery imposed on women and girls.

“There is an overwhelming number of communities affected by the traumas of human rights abuse across the globe,” said Professor David Cohen, Director of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice. “Combined with growing evidence demonstrating that such trauma is a primary contributor to major physical and mental health disorders, as well as significant negative life outcomes, the Program’s mission of promoting accountability, informing justice processes, and advocating for the victims and survivors of human rights abuses is all the more important.”

Over the past several months, the HRTMHP has been working with experts in the UNITAD investigative team to support the provision of specialist assessments (psychiatric and psychological screening of witnesses) and contributing to discussions on best practices for the collection and analysis of mental health data. The mental health outcomes and welfare of survivor communities – whether Christian, Kakai’i, Shabak, Shia, Sunni, Turkmen, or Yazidi – are at the center of all UNITAD’s efforts. This month, core faculty from the HRTMHP, including Dr. Daryn Reicherter and Dr. Ryan Matlow from Stanford School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, will work alongside UNTAD’s own team of psychologists to lead a series of interactive and contextualized trainings for UNITAD investigators focused on best practices for working with survivors of severe trauma. A theoretical framework on trauma psychology will be augmented by discrete sessions on working with children, survivors of sexual and gender-based crimes, and other vulnerable communities. There will also be a session on vicarious trauma and self-care for investigators exposed to extreme traumatic scenarios. Both the HRTMHP and UNITAD have acted nimbly to adjust to the extraordinary circumstances around the COVID-19 pandemic, moving the trainings online and making the most of the fact that many investigators are grounded due to UN protocols and various national lockdowns.

“I have been consistently impressed with the expertise and professionalism I have seen from HRTMHP faculty and staff under the leadership of Dr. Reicherter, including in the time we spent together in Baghdad last year,” said Special Adviser and Head of the Investigative Team Karim A. A. Khan QC. “Addressing trauma psychology is a critical part of UNITAD investigations given the serious implications for victims and survivors, as well as investigators themselves. UNITAD’s team of psychologists bring a wealth of experience in mental health, expertise in trauma, and cross-cultural psychology. The collaboration with HRTMHP has strengthened the assistance provided to the investigations and reflects our survivor-centered approach implemented from the outset of our investigations. This 7-module training course will further enhance our understanding of trauma in its various guises so that we can mitigate any potential relapses or negative consequences for survivors and witnesses.”

The partnership with UNITAD will continue throughout the year, including with the drafting of a field guide on standard good practices for working with survivors of severe trauma, with a focus on children  and survivors of sexual and gender based crimes. The HRTMHP is pleased to have also been able to engage students from Stanford Law School’s Human Rights & Conflict Resolution Clinic in this initiative under the supervision of HRTMHP core faculty member Beth Van Schaack.

“The Human Rights in Trauma Mental Health Program aims to fundamentally adapt the way legal advocates, first responders, and mental health practitioners are trained to work with survivors of human rights abuses and how various justice systems understand the impact of these harms,” said Dr. Reicherter. “Partnerships with well-respected institutions like UNITAD are key to pushing this vision forward.”

Learn more about UNITAD’s approach in this video or visit their website. Note: the video contains difficult content and may not be appropriate for all viewers.