14 NOVEMBER 2008
The context of silence
The context of silence, which existed in Northern Ireland for most of the years of the Troubles (1969-1998) when Northern Ireland was characterised by sectarian violence, cannot be underestimated. To those outside Northern Ireland, it is often hard to explain the depth of such all-prevailing silence that extended to all levels of society in Northern Ireland. A silence from those involved in Health and Social Services. A silence within the Universities in Northern Ireland who have been training professionals to work in such a context. A silence among those planning Health and Social care provision. It was a silence that extended from the street to the Department of Health and Social Services, and right through to the Government administrations of both Stormont and Westminster. A silence that failed to address the psychological difficulties experienced by so many. A silence that made no space for the stories of those affected by the Troubles. In such a vacuum, services particularly those in the statutory sector, obviously failed to develop.
The culture of silence also extended to the therapeutic context. Living in a cultural context where words can kill sets the rules within a society. Many professionals were ill equipped to have conversations about matters, which were unspeakable in our culture. Systemic psychotherapy requires a conversation that is co-created, one that enables meaning and understanding to develop, a process whereby through the telling of experiences a coherent narrative can develop. The hearing and witnessing of such stories, is important for those who have experienced severe trauma. Such processes are not possible in a context of silence.
There were many complex reasons for such silence fear, and not really "seeing" the problem, among them. Further, some professionals were silent through fear of not responding appropriately.
I was afraid of the pain that would come out and would not know what to do with it. I would have to take it home with me. It goes around in your head and there is no way to deal with it ... Trauma was everywhere and we were there too. It could have been us. The only help was with your colleagues. (Hayes & Campbell, 2000, p. 709)
The first to speak out were those in the voluntary and community sector. During the early 1990s self-help groups began to develop services, often driven by those who had been seriously affected by the Troubles themselves. Such developments helped to pave the way for the silence to be broken by others involved in service provision, particularly those involved in the statutory sector.
Breaking the silence
I have previously (Healey, 1996, 1999) described my personal experience of attempting to break this silence, describing how as a staff team we began to ask families, referred to an adolescent psychiatry unit, if the Troubles had any connection to the story they were telling us about their child. The more we asked this question, the more the answer was "well yes actually" new stories and new narratives began to emerge. Stories that included a wider societal view, a view that included the political process, a view that allowed new meanings and understandings to emerge. The initial attempts to develop a therapeutic conversation in such a context of silence were also facilitated by being able to develop a safe space and create an environment where all sides of the story could be told.
Healey, A. (2004). A diiferent description of trauma:
A wider systemic perspective - A personal insight. Child Care in
Practice, 10, 2. pp. 167-168.
Hayes, P. and Campbell, J. (2000). Dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder: The psychological sequelae of Bloody Sunday and the response of the State services. Research on Social Work Practice, 10, 6. pp. 705-720.
Healey, A. (1996). Systemic theory in a culture of conflict: Developing a therapeutic conversation. Child Care in Practice, 3, 1. pp. 68-84.