When trauma meets trauma: Navigating the complexities of unprocessed trauma

By Dr Stephen Shisanya

When trauma meets trauma: Navigating the complexities of unprocessed trauma
When trauma meets trauma: Navigating the complexities of unprocessed trauma

Every year, South Africans commemorate the Day of Reconciliation on December 16. This public holiday came into effect in 1995 after the end of apartheid, with the intention being to foster national unity for the country.

But putting an end to hostility and restoring friendly relations is neither straightforward nor easy. Especially when the particular trauma experienced has not been dealt with. The Day of Reconciliation serves as a perfect opportunity to address and process the historic trauma so many still carry today.

As a country, our history is one stained with harsh realities and forms of systemic violence and, as such, it is understandable that some are still dealing with unprocessed trauma nearly 30 years later. While the 1994 elections brought democracy, civil liberties and freedom, they did not simply erase the collective trauma that numerous South Africans are still grappling with today.

Adding to historic trauma, are the challenges we face today such as high levels of unemployment, poverty, and inequality. The trauma that emanates from these issues often manifests into violent behaviour, strikes and civil unrest, much like what the country experienced in Durban in July 2021. There, we saw serious racial tensions, with bloodshed between the Black and Indian communities.

This unprocessed trauma can prevent people from letting their guard down and opening up to other people, which stifles any effort in building social cohesion, which is essential for creating a stable society where everyone feels secure and supported by their community.

Unprocessed trauma does not only affect the individual who experienced it; it can also have a negative effect on future generations. This why it is so important that this hurt is acknowledged and that attempts are made to deal with the damage that has already been done. Addressing unprocessed trauma is not a one-size-fits-all strategy; it requires a multi-pronged approach.

Recognising the importance of trauma-informed care and investing in accessible and culturally competent interventions can have a profound impact on the mental health and resilience of individuals and communities. In doing so, we can prevent long-term mental health issues and reduce the burden on healthcare systems. By breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma there is an opportunity to prevent its negative impact on future generations. Additionally, interventions that support individuals in processing and healing from trauma contribute to the development of resilience, and resilient individuals are better equipped to cope with stress, navigate life’s challenges, and maintain a sense of well-being.

Furthermore, we must remember that trauma can negatively impact an individual’s ability to form and maintain healthy relationships and can also lead to the adoption of dysfunctional coping mechanisms, like substance abuse and self-harm. The right interventions improve social functioning, promote strong interpersonal connections, and help individuals develop healthier coping strategies.

As a society, we need to be cognisant of the fact that trauma manifests differently across different cultural groups, which is why is it so important that all interventions are culturally sensitive. Similarly, we need to raise awareness about the prevalence and impact of trauma so that we can promote open discussions and create a more supportive and understanding environment.

It is important to note that the effectiveness of interventions can vary from person to person, and a tailored and holistic approach is often the most beneficial. Professional guidance from therapists, counsellors, or mental health professionals is crucial in designing and implementing appropriate interventions for individuals dealing with unprocessed trauma. Some of the possible interventions may include and limited to, individual or therapeutic support, Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques, Expressive Therapies, creating supportive relationships, and Psycho education.

South Africa is lagging behind in creating an environment that fosters real social cohesion, reconciliation and equitable access and opportunities for all members of society. By recognising and understanding the impact of unprocessed trauma we can develop the interventions needed to support healing and to build resilience for all affected communities.

Dr Stephen Shisanya is an experienced Community Development Practitioner Consulting for Governance and Livelihoods Agenda (AgendaGL) and Afesis in implementing the Kagisano Programme.