No peace without peace of mind: Why we need to link mental health and psychosocial support into peacebuilding, now.
They say every cloud has a silver lining. While it took me a while to find the silver lining on the massive and ever-evolving dark cloud of Covid-19; I think I’ve found it: all of a sudden everyone around me is talking about (their) mental health. Cooped up in our homes, prevented from spending time with those we love; overwhelmed with anxiety and fear and uncertainty; mental health has become a far more frequent dinner table topic than it was before the pandemic reigned on us. I for one hope it stays that way; here’s why:
For me mental health is personal, professional and inextricably linked to violent conflict. My German grandfather fled his beloved hometown of Bautzen in East Germany during the Sovietisation in 1954. My mother and grandmother followed a few days later; leaving behind everything but a small suitcase containing their most urgent possessions. By all accounts my grandfather-desperately homesick- became heavily depressed soon after leaving Bautzen. This impacted heavily on his ability to earn a living and to be emotionally present for his young daughter and wife.
And, to this day, my mother, 5 years old at the time; says she has nightmares about getting lost in and amongst rows and rows of identical tents in a Berlin refugee camp where the family initially sought refuge.
Having spent much time understanding, talking about and analysing our family history, my sister and I have now made peace with the fact that our grandfather’s depression (or melancholy as he called it) has been passed down through the generations; via our mother, to her and I.
However, my professional aha-moment came in a dialogue session with community leaders in Juba, South Sudan in 2014. We had been circling around the same topic for days; trying to establish a feasible model for reconciliation dialogues in that country. At some point a young man who had witnessed the horrors of war first hand, opened up. His story was raw, fresh and filled with a pain and anger that appeared to resonate deeply with the other participants in the room. This unlocked something. As participants responded with an almost contagious energy, volunteering to share their own stories with us, something shifted for me. It became clear to me that unless peacebuilders systemically collaborate with mental health and psycho-social support practitioners to address the psychological impact of conflict; the peace we are trying to build will not materialise. We will not live in peace and be able to contribute to the building of that peace; unless we have peace of mind. Indeed, evidence shows that those who have not processed the wounds of the past; are less likely to engage actively and peacefully in community-rebuilding efforts.
Conflict destroys so much more than physical infrastructure. It reaches deep into society, carefully destroying link after link of its fragile fibre. As trust erodes; so do the relationships which govern our co-existence. The more those relationships are damaged; the less cushioning we have to protect us from the daily stress of everyday living. This in turn erodes us; our wellbeing and our resilience. As such there is no question in my mind, that peacebuilders and MHPSS professionals must work together if they want to effectively and sustainably rebuild societies destroyed by war. Advocating for this simple yet crucial truth, is what I care most deeply about. It is my life’s work. This is the topic of my SCI as well as the lens with which I listen to and participate in the tremendously enriching Rotary Peace Fellowship.
Friederike Bubenzer – South Africa
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30