Treatment of abuse is not child’s play

Dubai Foundation for Women and Children rebuilds young, damaged lives with innovative but difficult therapies.

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DUBAI // Children as young as four who suffered sexual or physical abuse and had post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosed, retold the trauma they underwent using toys as part of a play therapy method managed by psychologists in Dubai.

“For children who are four to eight years, it’s very hard for them to tell you what happened in words,” said Ghanima Hassan Al Bahri, care and rehabilitation director of the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children (DFWAC).

She is one of 45 social workers and psychologists from across the UAE who are attending a three-day training workshop on PTSD organised by the DFWAC.

“We have seen trauma symptoms even in four and five-year-old children and it’s not only sexual abuse, it could be physical or emotional neglect. It’s very difficult for children to explain the incident in a structured way. It’s a challenge for them to name what they felt. They know what happened but they cannot express how it impacted them.”

Early intervention is key to reaching out to women and children who suffer from PTSD after being raped, sexually abused or subjected to severe physical assault, psychologists said.

Since January, DFWAC has dealt with 650 cases of women and children who were victims of domestic violence, sexual and physical assault or human trafficking.

Of these 47 were offered shelter, the rest were provided external help. The total included 379 victims of domestic violence.

A connection through play therapy is established between the therapist and child.

“We have a play therapy room where they can show you what happened to them through toys, play and games,” said Ms Al Bahri.

“They go through the process of healing through play. The faster the intervention is, the faster is the healing. But if because of the stigma, the culture, the mother hides it, they don’t seek help and the child stays like this for three to five years, then it becomes more difficult.”

DFWAC statistics released in September showed 452 cases of abused women and children in the first half of this year. There were 229 domestic violence cases, 31 of child abuse and shelter was offered to 29 victims.

“The symptoms show also in cases of severe physical assault that cause bruising, bleeding or disability. Or if a woman is pregnant and has been physically abused and has lost the child,” Ms Al Bahri said. They endured nightmares, were unable to sleep, refused to speak to people or eat, were irritable and afraid when they saw men. Victims requiring further assistance were referred to psychiatrists at government facilities.

Detection, care and treatment are being discussed at the workshop, which is being attended by social workers from health centres, shelters, police, courts and prosecution services.

“We felt that there was a lack of awareness among specialists, whether they are working in the legal, mental health field or even in a shelter,” said Ms Al Bahri.

“When they saw clients not sleeping, not eating well, not cooperating or speaking about their trauma, they treated it as an uncooperative case, but it is totally not that. It is because of this disorder (PTSD) and symptoms that they are acting like that.”

Life-threatening experiences, natural calamities or war also induce PTSD, said Dr Ahmad AlHadi, assistant professor and consultant in psychiatry and psychotherapy at King Saud University, Saudi Arabia.

Attendees at the workshop will practise techniques to assess and manage patients, he said.

“The treatment can be medication, psychological and psychiatric therapy. For medication we need four to six weeks to see the effect and sessions can take three to four months or more. If not treated in time, it could take a long time to overcome.”