In April 2017, a devastating landslide hit the city of Mocoa, the capital of Putumayo region in southern Colombia. Official figures say that 333 people lost their lives including around 50 children , although these figures are contested by locals who believe the death toll may be as high as 1,000+. 60% of the city’s neighbourhoods were damaged, many irreparably, leaving thousands of Mocoans without homes, schools or places of work. In response to the tragedy, a group of Colombian students in the UK launched an impressive fundraising campaign to help us to design and run a project to ‘rebuild Mocoa’.
The clear choice for us was to work with our existing Mocoa-based partner organisation, Casa Amazonia, whose team specialise in supporting victims of trauma and who had been involved in the immediate humanitarian response in the days after the landslide, sourcing and handing out essentials such as clothes and sanitary items to survivors who had lost everything.
At CCC our strategy is to tackle ‘neglected issues’ in both the immediate and long term and our approach to this emergency project was no different. We wanted to make sure that our response to the disaster was carefully planned, coordinated with other agencies, and that it would support the affected communities in the long term, as well as providing for their immediate needs. Although a number of organisations were involved in the initial humanitarian response, it soon became clear to Casa Amazonia that almost nothing was being done to provide for the survivors’ mental health needs. As a children’s rights organisation, Casa Amazonia particularly noted how the combination of severe shock and grief, the surrounding devastation, and the deep-rooted trauma of living with poverty, conflict and neglect for years before the landslide was pushing some of Mocoa’s young people towards depression; increasing levels of self-harm and suicide and creating a general feeling of hopeless about the future.
Through the project we developed to address this, Casa Amazonia worked with 73 high-risk children, 39 of their parents and teachers and 15 female community leaders, helping them all to cope with their traumatic experiences, take big steps to rebuild their lives and support others around them to do the same. In contrast to the uncoordinated, very short-term interventions provided by a few governmental and NGO relief agencies, Casa Amazonia was able to provide the children with consistent, personalised support over a period of seven months (June – December).
Although Casa Amazonia’s main aim was to help the participants to overcome the trauma of the landslide, they also made sure that the problems children and their families faced before the landslide hit were not overlooked. They worked with the children on their decision-making and assertiveness skills, helping them develop a sense of confidence and control over their bodies and their futures. Self-confidence is such an important skill for these children, but it can be very difficult for them to develop it when they are under the constant stress of poverty and the threat of violence. With Casa Amazonia’s support, the children developed the confidence to say ‘no’ if they are invited to take part in an illegal or dangerous activity, to believe that they deserve protection, and to ask for help when they feel in danger. In terms of overcoming the trauma of the landslide, self-confidence is an integral element to strengthening the children’s emotional resilience.
Casa Amazonia also worked to strengthen the emotional resilience of the children’s parents and teachers, helping them to overcome their own experiences of the landslide and teaching them ways in which they could support children. The teachers reported that this support gave them the confidence and practical skills to talk to their pupils about the landslide and support those who had lost loved ones through their grieving processes. The teachers also organised a Mental Health Awareness Day in each of their schools, during which they taught pupils about their rights, explained how they could care for their mental health and what to do if they needed support. The teachers noticed real improvements in pupils’ engagement in school and in their interactions with classmates and staff thanks to Casa Amazonia’s support.
The work with 15 female community leaders was a hugely successful but entirely unplanned element of this project which established a sustainable community-led mental health care initiative. The women first became involved in Casa Amazonia’s emergency relief work in the weeks immediately following the landslide. They themselves had all lost their homes and livelihoods in the disaster and were survivors of various forms of abuse, such as domestic violence and sexual assault.
Poster advertising an interactive theatre performance devised by the Network of Resilient Women for International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women
With Casa Amazonia’s support, the women formed a group called the Network of Resilient Women, through which they carried out outreach work and organised meetings for local women in order to learn about their needs and those of their children. Parallel to this, Casa Amazonia provided the 15 women with psychosocial support to help them overcome the trauma they had experienced before and during the landslide, and offered guidance to help the women access financial support to set up small businesses or recover the livelihoods they had lost. The women went on to replicate Casa Amazonia’s therapeutic activities and exercises with other women in their communities, as well as organising community events to raise awareness of mental health and women’s rights.
Marco, who is 12 years old, took part in the project. He was referred to Casa Amazonia for counselling by his teacher after she noticed that he was having difficulty concentrating in class and interacting with his classmates after the landslide.
Casa Amazonia’s psychologist helped him to open up about his feelings, and he explained that he was afraid there would be another landslide. He said that he felt responsible for protecting his family and so he was trying to stay awake all night long and went to bed each evening fully-dressed, so that that he would be ready to escape if need be. As Marco opened up more, he explained that on the night of the disaster he had been the first person in his house to realise that the landslide was happening, he had raised the alarm and it was thanks to him that his family had all escaped to safety. It was because of this that he now felt responsible for protecting his loved ones.
He was very aware that his family had lost everything in the disaster. “We have nothing left” he told the psychologist. His feeling of responsibility for his family’s safety, combined with the knowledge that the landslide had left them in a very precarious position financially, was taking a serious toll on Marco’s mental health.
Thanks to the support Casa Amazonia was able to give him, Marco learnt to rationalise his fears. He accepted that it was not his responsibility alone to protect his family, but that instead they could pull together to analyse the risks they faced and think about how best to protect themselves. Marco’s teacher told Casa Amazonia that both his confidence and behaviour in school had significantly improved thanks to their intervention.