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November 2007 Issue
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Civil war impact greater than tsunami: scholar


The long-running civil war in Sri Lanka is causing more mental health problems and social breakdown than the catastrophic 2004 tsunami, according to a University of Adelaide researcher.

Clinical Associate Professor in Psychiatry Daya Somasundaram himself fled Sri Lanka fearing for his and his family's safety, and is Australia's first 'refugee scholar' at the University under the Scholar Rescue Fund.

Associate Professor Somasundaram has completed a study on collective trauma in northern Sri Lanka, comparing effects on the community of the chronic war with those of the 2004 tsunami which killed 31,000 Sri Lankans. The research was published recently in the online open-access, peer-reviewed publication

"The natural disaster was a one-off catastrophic event that left a trail of destruction and loss," said Associate Professor Somasundaram. "But it did not continue to exert a prolonged effect. As a result, the severity of the collective trauma was much less. In fact, having lived through a prolonged war situation has meant that Tamil communities have learned skills and strategies that make them better able to cope with disasters."

Associate Professor Somasundaram found the effects of chronic disasters, such as war, went beyond the individual to family, community and the wider society. To be effective, relief, rehabilitation and development programs needed to address the problems of collective trauma, he said.

His study suggests that grass roots work within communities may work best. "In the aftermath of war, communities suffer from mistrust, suspicion, silence, brutalisation, deterioration in morals and values, poor leadership, dependency, passivity and despair," he said.

"Apart from attending to the immediate basic needs and other acute problems in the rescue and relief phases after a major disaster, rehabilitation, reconstruction and development strategies need to include collective-level interventions. In fact, our experiences show that many individually oriented mental health interventions appear to fare much better when undertaken within an overall framework of a community strategy."

The study, "Collective trauma in northern Sri Lanka: a qualitative psychosocial-ecological study", is based on published data and qualitative research methods including participatory observation, key informant and focus group interviews.

Associate Professor Somasundaram came to the University of Adelaide's Discipline of Psychiatry under the US-based Scholar Rescue Fund at the end of 2005 with his wife and children. He was at risk because of his writing and documentation about the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka.

Story by Robyn Mills

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Destruction at Galle, Sri Lanka from the tsunami in December 2004

Destruction at Galle, Sri Lanka from the tsunami in December 2004
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