A Johannesburg domestic worker, who, for private reasons, shall not be named, was walking to her usual taxi rank, when she was attacked at gunpoint by a group of men.
The experience left her feeling emotionally crippled: unable to stop seeing the attack playing out in her mind daily. She was afraid every time she saw a group of people, especially men.
“At times, I felt like I couldn’t bring myself to cross the road. I was so scared that the same thing would happen,” shares *Khety.
Sadly, Khety’s experience is far from exceptional – every day, hundreds of South Africans become victims of (often violent) crime. Allan Sweidan, clinical psychologist and co-CEO and founder of Panda, says that it is critical for people, who have found themselves in traumatic situations, to talk to someone they can trust.
Realising that the trauma had impacted Khety’s quality of life, to the point where every day felt like an enormous battle, her employer recommended she consult a counsellor on the Panda app.
It is a free-to-download digital app, that is designed to put mental health information, community support and expert help, literally in the palm of your hand – by offering free mental health advice.
“At first, I didn’t want to try it, I didn’t think anything could help me,” says Khety.
Lindelwa Ndiki, a teacher for 27 years and a specialist wellness counsellor believes face-to-face sessions as a method is more effective because contact sessions are more personal.
“Although the aspect of online therapy can be more convenient for other people, as the clients can access you wherever you are, furthermore, in an online session, even though you won’t be able to read your client’s body language, it will be the tone of the voice that can help you to understand the emotions of your client,” says Ndiki.
“I find that eye contact is very important, as you are able to read the emotions and it also helps to build trust between the counsellor and the client.”
However, Dr Anne Govender, a psychologist and life coach for the Join Panda app believes that her approach, while consulting through the Join Panda app, hinges on helping people harnessing their inner strength, so that they are able to take charge of their lives once more.
According to Govender, it's critical for patients to understand how to re-frame the incident, in order for them to feel more powerful and be able to transition from being a helpless victim to someone with agency over their own life.
She advised Khety to imagine the scene as a movie.
“I saw all of us as characters in this movie but, when I imagined myself, I saw that I am not as helpless as I thought. I have control over my life. Yes, what happened to me was terrible, but I am alive – and that in itself is a triumph,” said Khety.
Dr Govender says that it was essential for Khety to regain control.
“She has no option but to take the same route to the taxi rank every day, otherwise she can’t get to work. If she hadn’t been able to see her experience from a different perspective, one which put her in a place of control, she would have been consumed by anxiety, to the point where the thought of taking a taxi may have left her incapacitated. The ripple effects are unthinkable. If she couldn’t muster the courage to get transport, she wouldn’t have been able to go to work. The loss of income would have had a terrible impact on her family,” commented Dr Govender.
Dr Govender’s main concern was to empower Khety.
“I believe that the most effective way of breaking a trauma ‘loop’ (the phenomenon where you find yourself unable to stop replaying the trauma in your mind) is by creating a new loop,” says Govender.
“Change your narrative to create a new story, where your different thoughts, different feelings and different actions result in more empowering consequences,” said Govender.
Describing the event once you are in a safe space can help you get some distance from it.
If, however, your symptoms of trauma don’t settle after a week or two, you may find it useful to do a PTSD screen assessment, within the Panda app. You’ll receive a score in real time, and some guidance as to what help you may need, explains Allan Sweidan, clinical psychologist and co-CEO and founder of Panda.
Even South Africans who have not been affected by crime may battle to deal with the stress of living in a traumatised society. Sweidan says that the following steps may help:
Limit your social media and news intake each day, as the exposure to negative news can impact your mood.
Do something for others, even if you’re feeling stressed.
Find a way to clear your mind each day: perhaps with meditation, a walk in the park, or prayer. Take care of things you can control, like your sleep, diet and exercise habits.
* Khety is a pseudonym to protect the identity of the victim.