“If you would provide this every night, I would come every night.”
This is what one of the African men said, who I met at the emotional wellbeing workshop from Boat Refugee Foundation. I am pleasantly surprised that any possible taboos do not stop these big, tough looking men from coming. And even more surprised to see that these workshops help them. A few hours a week of psycho social support might seem a drop in the ocean in the challenging situation in Moria, but it is much more than that. There is high need: Doctors Without Borders call the situation at Lesbos a Mental Health Emergency. However, low threshold mental health care is hardly available on the Greek islands.
“I can understand that NGOs are reluctant, because they don’t want to open up trauma that they cannot treat in such an unstable environment and with volunteers who are only here, mostly for short periods. “, social worker Leanne Creasy says.
Leanne and other professionals with relevant knowledge and experience developed programs for mental health support. She discusses what these programs look like, why the chosen practicle method is so valuable and how they prevent the escalation of trauma.
Emotional well being workshop and stress relief classes
We run two programs in Moria to help people with mental health problems: the emotional well being workshop and the stress relief classes.
The emotional well being workshop consists of four sessions in which participants learn how thoughts,feelings and behaviour all impact upon one another. The sessions help people to identify that they have more control than they think and whilst they can’t control the past, they have some control over the present. Around these themes we:
- Work on self confidence by creating awareness of positive experiences and exercises for self compassion: write down (small) positive experiences and talents.
- Provide coping strategies for frequently discussed mental problems in Moria: sleeplessness, depression, suicidal thoughts and panic attacks. We explain how these arise and how to manage these. For example, we explain that during a panic attack it is important to focus on the present moment such as your surroundings, and to do breathing exercises, which we teach.
During Stress Relief Classes we help participants control their emotions by developing their ability to focus and stay in the present moment. We do this through relaxation, breathing and mindfulness meditation techniques. Many people in Moria are constantly worrying about their past and future and consequently experience stress, sleeplessness, panic attacks, headaches and bodyaches .By increasing the ability to relax these complaints may diminish.
You cannot change your situation, only the way you feel about it
Leanne tells me that the main benefits of both programs are creating solidarity, hope and coping strategies.
“Many participants are single men. They feel lonely. By joining these lessons in a group they feel more accepted and belonging. When I ask what makes the lessons valuable to them they mention things like: acceptance, feeling welcome, feeling less lonely. Sharing experiences and feelings also helps to develop hope. Knowing that others struggle with the same problems and they have found solutions can be hopeful”.
“Besides working on solidarity and hope it is important that we teach people how to cope with the tough circumstances in Moria “, Leanne continues. “You cannot change your past and the difficult situation you’re in, only the way you handle it”.
This focus on how to handle the difficult present situation differs from therapy to process trauma: care which is highly needed in Moria, but we cannot provide due to our often changing teams. That kind of care preferrably requires individual specialist therapy that is available over a long period. Long term therapy by one specialist.
In the beginning of the lessons many participants are resistant to focus on the present: “These exercises will not help to forget what I experienced, I want medication”. “Leaving Moria is the only thing what will help me”. Helping participants to focus on the now and keep them there is the most important task and the biggest challenge for the team leader. I saw Leanne doing this more often during the workshops, by saying:
“I understand that you are angry about what happened to you. We cannot imagine the awful things that you have had to experience. However, you cannot change the past. You only can change the way you manage your thoughts and your feelings in the here and now. We will look at ways to do this today to help you gain more contro over over your emotional wellbeing”.
Later she tells me that sometimes it can be very challenging to help people focus on the present, but that it is worthwhile when you succeed and when you see them leaving more hopeful or relaxed than when they arrived.
“He talked to no one, now he hands out flyers from our programs”
This happens more often: participants feeling better after the emotional well being workshops or stress relief classes. When I participated a few weeks ago in the mindfulness exercises my neighbour fell asleep: the summit of relaxation! Doctors from other NGOs in Moria told our coordinators that they often see patients in better conditions after they participate in our workshops and lessons.
A few quotes of participants:
“These group sessions help me to reduce my stress level.”
“I slept better last week.”
“The information we get helps us to understand our feelings and find a better balance.”
“Everyone who participates, comes from another country. We share our feelings and ideas. It feels like a family.”
Last quote comes from a man who was at the emotional well being workshop from the start last January. Leanne remembers him vividly by the impressive change she noticed with him. She tells:
“He behaved very withdrawn when he came to the workshop for the first time. He did not talk, made no eye contact, sat mumbling in a corner. I remember that another member of the team was worried; she thought he was psychotic. After a few lessons I saw enormous progression. He talked and said that the group felt like family and that it was fantastic that all these people shared their feelings. He shared his enthusiasm with others, for instance by explaining to new participants what we did during the lessons. A few weeks ago he told me that he copied our handouts and that he delivers them where we cannot come. By joining our workshop he realised that he could learn to change his feelings by changing his behaviour”.
Seeing these magnificent changes is the best part from her work in Moria, according to Leanne. I speak with her at the moment she is about to leave after four months.
“It was an overwhelming experience. I feel privileged that people entrust their time, stories, emotions and experiences to me. And that I witnessed how they changed. Of course it is not only our workshops and lessons, but they defintely made a difference. It is so important that we do this”.
Her eyes get wet, when she says this. I ask her why she decided four months ago to come to Lesbos.
“When in high school during history lessons I learned about human disasters. At that time myself and most other school children said that we would stand up, we would help people who needed it and we would not stand by and be part of a something we didn’t agree with. But now all those children are grown up and most people turn a blind eye and choose not to involve themselves in what is happening. Many people don’t do anything even though it’s there for us to see on social media, there’s no denying what is happening and its inhumane. I wanted to be on the right side of history and I wanted to separate myself from the actions of my country, of the EU. It’s too easy to ignore what is happening on a small Greek island at the border of Europe and look in the opposite direction.“
Do you want to help?
The situation in Moria is poignant: there is no privacy, it is dangerous, inhabitants have no future perspective and they have hardly any help with processing their past. That means that many refugees have mental health problems. We think that this should change: it is unworthy of man! Until then we help people in Moria to make the best of their situation. For example by the emotional well being workshop and the Stress Relief Classes.
Do you want to support us? Please donate, every euro is welcome!
Text: Suzie Geurtsen
Photo’s: Kathelijne Reijse Saillet