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In Central African Republic, Action contre la Faim is taking on psychology trainees from Bangui University to train them in psychosocial support and care practices for malnourished children and their careers.
The representation of mental health and psychology remains a challenge in Central African Republic. “My sisters call me ‘Doctor of the Mad’. But I tell them, no! Psychologists are also there for normal people like you, to ease their suffering” storms Florida, shaking her long pink tresses. Along with Dieumerci, Landry, and Patrick, the student is one of the future psychologists benefiting from a 3-month internship with Action contre la Faim. Since 2020, an operational collaboration agreement has been signed between Action contre la Faim and the Department of Psychology at Bangui University, welcoming an average of 12 trainees a year.
For Florida, a case of distress in her entourage motivated her vocation. But none of this would have been possible without her mother’s support in the face of family reticence. “She often says that you have to follow your dreams in life. It’s all coming true now.”
Between practical work in the health centers supported by Action contre la Faim and theoretical training, the internship confronts the students with professional reality, according to Valdès, head of the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support department. “Wherever there are people, there is a need for psychologists, and malnutrition can affect the mental health of parents and children and the links between the two“, he says, urging them throughout their placement to see things from a psychologist’s point of view. It is up to them to observe and interpret the visual, emotional, verbal and physical interactions between children and parents, and to identify the signs of psychological distress in both. “It’s also important,” he adds, “to always make a link between these observations in the field and theoretical references in psychology, such as work on attachment in children.”
That morning, Florida visited the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Pédiatrique in Bangui, where children under the age of five suffering from severe acute malnutrition with medical complications are cared for 24 hours a day. During her morning visit, she observed the patients and their carers before inviting them into the playroom where psychosocial and psychological support activities are carried out.
On large multicolor mats strewn with colorful toys, the children and their mothers sit in a circle. They take turns introducing themselves and singing. This is an exit workshop; the children are on the road to recovery and will soon be able to go home. Advice is given on how to follow up on their outpatient treatment, and on good hygiene and nutrition practices. The carers exchange lively and share concerns that are understood and allayed.
Confronting the suffering of others can be a source of anxiety for psychologists. However, it is important to maintain an empathetic stance throughout the treatment. “It’s a privilege for me to be at the bedside of these patients because we often say in psychology that you have to have empathy first. It often hurts, there are certain mothers who are in a state of distress in the pediatric ward“, Florida points out. In the end, everyone stands up. Standing up, arms relaxed, bodies turn in slow torso rotations, bare feet firmly planted on the ground. Then the hands rise, rubbing together before bursting into applause and laughter. End of the session.
In a country where a succession of violent crises over several decades has affected all sections of the population, the need for mental health care is paramount, and financial resources and qualified staff are limited. Far from being confined to the impact on individuals, mental health has repercussions both on interpersonal relationships and on society as a whole.
Action contre la Faim has been working on mental health and care practices since 2008. The partnership with the psychology department of the University of Bangui enables us to train tomorrow’s professionals and offer them access to practice and our expertise.
Central African Republic
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