Tackling child trauma through art and play
Deborah Byrne is a child art psychotherapist from Ireland who has been volunteering with the AHC social work unit for the past six months. She has been teaching the team techniques using art and play therapy to enhance a child’s sense of well-being and assist with children’s learning, behavioural, emotional and social problems.
Due to the global pandemic, nearly all international medical volunteers have been unable to visit AHC in person, resorting to training and mentorship remotely. Deborah was fortunate to be visiting Cambodia with her husband when borders began to close in early 2020, seizing the opportunity to volunteer with AHC while border restrictions were in place.
After completing her Master of Child Art Psychotherapy at the University College Dublin, Deborah began working in private practise, including some short assignments volunteering abroad, before joining AHC. She explained her motivation to specialise in art psychotherapy was to help children heal emotionally and process trauma through one-to-one therapy. “I want to support children because they have no control over their situation and need to be given the time and space to heal.” – Deborah Byrne
Art and psychotherapy is a form of child counselling using art and play to help a child express their experiences and feelings through a natural, self-guided and self-healing process. Social workers can effectively use these techniques to better understand and help resolve any psychological and psychosocial challenges like abuse, trauma, loss of a loved one, or chronic illness. “Children find it difficult to express their feelings through speech,” said Deborah, “So using play can help them relax and open up when we ask questions.”
In Cambodia, one in four children have suffered emotional abuse, while one in 20 children have been sexually assaulted, according to UNICEF. Sim Sophearin, the head of AHC’s social work unit explains the importance of continually learning new ways to help children who have been abused. “As a team we are always looking for effective ways to help children overcome their trauma.” said Sophearin, “Art and play allows our counsellors to connect with children without the pressure of verbal communication.”
At AHC, Deborah works directly with the social work team to improve their play and art therapy knowledge and skills. She hosts regular training sessions with the team on topics ranging from understanding the different professions of play, sensory motor trauma, loss and grief, PTSD patient safety, and clinical note taking. The training focuses on issues specific to the Cambodian setting, using role play and real-life case studies, to help the team prepare for local challenges, especially during the global pandemic.
The social work team has witnessed first-hand the effects COVID-19 has had on Cambodian families. “Families are arriving at hospital under more and more financial stress,” said Sophearin, “It is making it harder for patients to travel and has resulted in less follow up appointments and more appointments over the phone.” AHC is preparing for 2021 by improving the access to social support services for Cambodian children and working with a wide network of medical, government and non-profit organisations throughout Cambodia to build awareness and understanding of social support.
After over eight months volunteering at AHC, Deborah is returning home for the birth of her first child. She plans to return to Cambodia next year and start a private project, partnering with social work organisations, that will continue progressing child art & play therapy in Cambodia. Deborah praised the dedication shown by the AHC team to improve child health in Cambodia. “I know Sophearin and the team have goals to advance counselling in Cambodia,” said Deborah, “I think that’s what is going to lay the foundations to grow the field here.”
The Social Work Unit at AHC is the first of its kind in Cambodia. Developed in 2012, it is now a leader in medical social work care in the country, providing unparalleled psychological and child protection support to patient families.
Visit here if you are interested in volunteering with AHC.