Lebanon – August 3 2021

Beirut explosion: Interview with a psychologist at SOS Children’s Villages Lebanon

Michel Haddad joined the Emergency Response team of SOS Children’s Villages Lebanon in December 2020 as a full-time psychologist providing psychosocial support and intervention to the families affected by the Beirut port explosion. Michel, 26, is a clinical and educational psychologist with experience in family and child counseling

In this interview, Michel gives us an overview of the current psychological challenges that children and families face in Lebanon, and shares how the team supports them to overcome these difficulties.

What role does mental health support play in Lebanon’s crises?

When it comes to humanitarian response, there is often a focus on activities such as food and money distributions. However, psychosocial support is also vital to the recovery of traumatized communities, especially when the families and individuals are facing various challenges at once.

In a country that has suffered more than 30 years of wars up to 1990, explosions trigger trauma and remind individuals of previous fears and painful experiences. Added with the uncertainty of current living conditions in Lebanon (increasing unemployment and poverty due to the national economic collapse and global pandemic, fear about health issues and availability of medical care, stress to meet everyday living needs, etc...), most individuals are living in a high level of anxiety and uncertainty affecting their productivity, communication, family relations, and everyday decision making.

Psychosocial support includes all actions to promote the wellbeing of these individuals, considering their psychological state (thoughts, feelings, behaviors) together with their social and personal connections and existing support systems, whether in their homes, jobs, or communities. The support can help people find their strength again after a discouraging setback. This can be seen on a regular basis as families plan ahead to manage their finances, consider their own small businesses, and play an active role in family dynamics where they were previously passive or felt unheard.

Can you describe the types of psychological support you provide to Lebanese families and their impact?

The psychological intervention helps families to better accept and cope with the loss they have faced within the past 9 months, starting from the Beirut port explosion, in addition to the various challenges faced in the economic, social, and health aspects.

Our main objectives were to improve the coping mechanisms for children, teenagers, and parents, help families build emotional resilience. We also wanted to help resolve family conflicts and to raise parents’ awareness of issues faced by their children.

We could support families through five types of intervention:

  • Awareness group sessions for kids, teenagers, adults and parents: These sessions were targeted at helping children and families develop needed life skills, addressing issues faced in many children’s everyday lives. These sessions included the topics of Grief, Anger Management, Emotional Awareness, Self Esteem, Learning Difficulties, Bullying, and Social Media and Screen Time Effects, among other childhood and teenage related issues.
  • Parental coaching through individual sessions on a daily basis to provide support and guidance on how to address their children’s issues, and allowing them a space to raise their concerns and need for support.
  • Individual psychological support for children, teenagers, adults and parents to address their specific mental health needs, whether in terms of dealing with difficulties, developing coping strategies, or voicing their fears and anxieties. Individual psychological support is key in developing resilient physical and mental health.
  • Group psychological support for adults and parents, providing awareness and useful mechanisms for coping strategies, including mindfulness, self- care, women empowerment, dealing with crisis, among others.
  • Psychosocial and recreational activities at the Child-Friendly Space in Karantina, the residential area directly facing the Beirut port, for children aged 6 to 12 years. These activities, along with basic educational support, provided children who were frontline to the explosion with a safe space to discuss their experiences, fears, and to raise awareness about their emotional health.

How do you deal with them?

I always start by creating a trusting atmosphere with families and children. This always makes the intervention easier, as we are able to communicate openly and they share with me their true thoughts and feelings. After that, I use the various approaches described above in order to create awareness, empower, and teach coping and resilience skills to individuals and families.

What was the most challenging phase of your intervention?

During the corona pandemic, we faced challenges in implementing the project due to lockdowns and closures; we were forced to stop or postpone face-to-face sessions and home visits. Despite the challenges, however, working as a team, the facilities and the support offered helped us to keep assisting in different ways, holding one-on-one, family, and online group sessions so that awareness and interventions were not interrupted. We were always motivated to find solutions, remain productive, and keep supporting our families.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

The best part of my job is that I am supporting families during one of the hardest situations in Lebanon and I am experiencing how the families, parents and children are responding to the psychological support and how their psychological and emotional states are becoming more stable.