Posted April 30th 2015 at 11:18 am by
in Post-disaster Planning, Perspectives on Current Events

Dealing with Trauma Amidst the Nepal Earthquake

Nepal EarthquakeSankhu, a particularly badly affected town in northwestern Nepal. Photo Credit: Laxmi Prasad Ngakhusi / UNDP Nepal.

Just four years ago, on March 11, 2011, the massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Japan and the subsequent tsunami reminded the world of our vulnerability to natural calamities. In Nepal, a country identified as seismically susceptible to earthquakes, we were alarmed by this disaster. As a response, over the past few years, the Nepali government, with the support of international agencies and international governments, has hosted many disaster preparedness and capacity building programs and trainings in and around the capital city of Kathmandu.

The government also instituted committees led by the Ministry of Home Affairs made efforts to strengthen the existing international airport, coordinated the armed forces and carried out retrofitting of several bridges and infrastructure on main thoroughfares in anticipation of a major earthquake in and around Kathmandu Valley. Nonetheless, the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal this weekend on April 25th, and the immediate loss of thousands of lives reminds us that individual preparedness is far from enough in disasters like this.

The earthquake has deeply destabilized the security of the people, both physical and psychological. The UN has estimated that eight million people in 39 of Nepal’s 75 districts have been affected. This is more than a quarter of the population. Officials say the death toll has exceeded 5,000 and could reach 10,000 and the Ministry of Home Affairs reports that half a million people have been displaced. Water, food and electricity are in short supply and aid groups are worried about the spread of infectious diseases in Nepal. The earthquake has left thousands of people sleeping in the open in the capital city of Kathmandu while authorities are battling time to rescue people still alive and trapped beneath the rubble in affected areas both inside and outside of the city.

Nepal EarthquakeSome of the damage in Bhaktapur, about eight miles from Kathmandu. Photo Credit: Laxmi Prasad Ngakhusi / UNDP Nepal.

The total economic cost of reconstruction alone could top $5 billion. Nepal was already battling a weak economy and corruption following the decade long civil conflict led by Maoist (1996 – 2006). So, an earthquake of this scale was the last thing the country needed. Undoubtedly, the most important call for the hour is the mobilization of relief (i.e. water, food, medicine, temporary shelter) throughout the affected areas and the management and dissemination of aid and information.

As expected, the earthquake has immobilized the State. It has proved insufficient in directing and managing resources. Some government offices housed in old structurally unsound buildings and poor roads in Kathmandu have been damaged. The paralysis of government has elevated the chaos and agitation is erupting across the country. While inter agency coordination has begun, the country faces logistics challenges.

After the earthquake and aftermath in Japan and Haiti, we Nepali, were acutely aware of the likelihood of us facing a similar catastrophe in our country. Involved in some of the awareness and capacity building work for earthquake preparedness, I wrote about the political implications of an earthquake in Nepal.

Photos from Kathmandu

Affected Crowds in Kathmandu. Photo Credit: Flickr/Jonathan Khoo

The Importance of Emotional Security

Being away from home when devastation hit my country, my experience of the earthquake has been exclusively through my computer screen; via the information provided by news agencies and the updates posted by my friends and family to various social media sites. My e-mail inbox filled with messages from friends and family living in Nepal and around the world shortly after the quake struck my hometown. Not being in my country at the time of this tragic incident has left me unable to understand the physical experience people back home have lived through. But, being in the presence of my friends and colleagues in Cambridge (Massachusetts USA) over the past few days, has made me look at the event and the impacts it is going to have on the lives of people in ways I would not have otherwise considered.

Never have I thought about the importance of one’s security and what it means to be secure as a Nepali, to the extent that I have over the past few days. All my life, I have taken the utmost care of the physical security of my family and friends. What I’ve realized however, in this hour of utmost crisis, is that equally important is emotional security. The counseling and emotional support I’ve received from my colleagues and friends has helped me to recognize how important emotional healing is in dealing with a tragic incident like this.

Nepali’s Socio-Cultural Traditions and How People Deal with Devastation

As countless houses have collapsed and structures of huge historical significance have turned into dust, there is a wide concern among the Nepali people about the loss of our architectural heritage in the capital city, Kathmandu. On social media, there has been an outpouring of emotion revealing people’s attachment to the temple complex built in the durbar squares of Kathmandu valley (Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur). These attachments are grounded in our connection to monarchy and our feudal past.

Dharahara tower

Dharahara tower. Photo Credit: Flickr/Francisco Anzola

Until the 19th century, the temple complex in Kathmandu was the residence of Nepal’s royal family. For many, the most breathtaking architectural loss was the nine-story Dharahara Tower in Kathmandu, built in 1832 on the orders of the queen. Nepal was a monarchy for centuries, we didn’t become a republic until 2007, so the practices of monarchial feudalism are deeply rooted in Nepalese culture even today. The social and familial structures throughout the country reflect feudal relationships where the elders demand and the younger people comply. As a result, mutual conversations of individual concerns do not constitute the norms of a typical Nepali household. For many Nepali, economic wellbeing is a struggle in and of itself. So emotional wellbeing is far from being identified as a necessity.

The majority of Nepal’s population is Hindu or Buddhist. Both of these religions believe death is a transformational process in which the cosmic and social order is maintained. Death is perceived to mark the beginning of the journey of the deceased to the heavenly abode of the ancestors. Unlike liberal western thought that contemplates life to be a celebration, the religious understanding in Nepali culture make death a virtuous act and life an indispensible suffering. The mortuary rituals that are prescribed to when discharging a man’s debt to his ancestors explain this. The child nurtures a parent, who nurtured the child, once dead. The child through the mortuary rituals liberates the deceased parent from their spirit and ensures that they attain a ‘good state’ after death (Sadgati). This religious belief is deeply engrained in the majority of the population and is apparent in day-to-day life practices. All this leaves very little space for children to express their real emotional concerns to their parents/guardians and vice versa.

Pashupatinath Temple Cremation.jpgA hindu funeral rite, a cremation at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu Nepal. Photo Credit: Benjamint444 via Wikimedia Commons.

Because of our religious understanding of death in Nepali societies, the response to insecurity or deprivation is in many ways fatalistic pessimism. Expressions abound that encourage making mental adjustments to emotional hardship. They include: what is to be, will be; that is just the way things are; that is ok, let’s accept it. As a result, we Nepali confine ourselves to diminutive boundaries of wishes and desires, accepting our fate as one where we deserve to be ruled by others, often as per god’s will.

Our disregard for psychological safety can be seen in how little we involve ourselves in having conversations within our families and listening to each other’s concerns regarding the individual perceived fear/threat and our emotional wellbeing following the tragic earthquake. Our obliviousness towards our own and our family’s emotional security is exemplified in cases where we spend little time expressing our fears and our vulnerabilities. But doing so is absolutely essential for overcoming the emotional distress resulting from a traumatic event like the current earthquake.

The persistence of after shocks is likely to provide an environment of uncertainty and a continued experience of re-traumatization for many residents, especially young children. Traumatic events leave us stranded. Yet, I can speak for a large number of Nepali in saying that, we often refuse to accept the crisis or to deal with it. We lack the language for understanding the role of tragedy in our lives and we often do not know how to conceptualize it and how to use words that can describe our feelings. Culturally and historically we believe ourselves to be strong and capable of enduring anything; therefore, denial comes easily to us. We use the term Gorkhalis, which translates to brave soldiers, colloquially. Yet, it is important that individual families in a critical time like this, talk about the event in safe and gentle ways and confront the feelings that accompany the experience. This is not an easy step. But, I believe it is a necessary one.

Confronting My Own Emotions

Shortly after the earthquake hit, I had a conversation with my daughter Cynara who is also currently away from home pursuing her masters at Brandeis University in Boston. We both tried to remain strong and withheld our real emotions of dread, fear and anxiety. In our conversation, Cynara talked about the need for us Nepali to rebuild, reconstruct and rise from this terrible event. Foolishly, I tried to act strong. I agreed that rebuilding structures was of foremost importance, but even as I spoke, I felt emotionally fragmented and psychologically unable to see how we could do this.

I found it extremely difficult to express my vulnerability to Cynara, as I’d never done so before. I believe she felt the same way. Upon reflection on our conversation, I realize that what I was actually feeling was not the absolute need to rebuild the structures, but a need to begin by rebuilding my emotional stability.

Collapsed buildings in earthquake-hit Chautara, Nepal

Collapsed buildings in earthquake-hit Chautara, Nepal, north east of Kathmandu. Photo Credit: Jessica Lea/DFID.

Moments later when we both met our dear friend, Prof. Deborah Stone and faced our emotions, I experienced the power of what a conversation filled with concern can mean in the midst of a heartbreaking event like this. I realized that our emotional security comes from sharing our vulnerabilities with our loved ones. Counseling can be one way of facilitating this. It is something I have never practiced with my family or friends back home; our culture and our society is not used to doing it, but I believe it can be very useful.

In Nepal, there is a stigma associated with seeking help for emotional concerns. Nepalis are generally not open to the idea of counseling and self-help. Furthermore, western-based methods such as behavioral therapies may not be appropriate for Nepali people. Unlike, western cultures that emphasizes autonomy, individualism and self-actualization through achieving personal desires and goals, Nepali culture emphasizes collectivism and pragmatism. Even when dealing with self-focused problems, Nepali people tend to do so through consideration of others. We are less likely to admit that we experience anxiety and psychological problems.

In this present situation, almost the entire population is likely to suffer from post trauma difficulties. Yet, in our culture, partly because of the phenomenon of authority worship, it is difficult for people who endure trauma to fully express vulnerability. Following the feudal practices where the entire nation once prostrated before the monarch, in Nepali culture, young people prostrate before their parents and elders by touching their feet. The elders are expected to protect the younger ones and remain as a symbol of strength. This practice ensures the continuity of worshipping those in authority. This demonstration of authority and strength compels the elders to hide their vulnerability behind the mask of strength and denial. As a result, societal norms suggest that no matter how difficult the situation one is confronted with, one should be strong enough to face it.

Nepal Earthquake

Affected people in Bhaktapur, Nepal. Photo Credit: Laxmi Prasad Ngakhusi / UNDP Nepal.

Relying on Community for Processing Trauma

In Nepal, there has traditionally been a strong social support system tied to the family and the community. In the devastation wrought by the earthquake, communities can again be principal actors in organizing activities where people can talk about the traumatic experience they have gone through and reduce their anxiety and feel safe. Schools can be involved in carrying out activities for traumatized children to help them to believe that the disaster is over and that they are now safe. Trained volunteers will be needed to provide counseling for victims who have lost their family members and are grieving. Finally, besides coping with the loss of their loved ones and numerous physical injuries, many will still have difficulty facing memories of the earthquake and the collapse of the houses/ monuments that once stood tall and represented their identity.

Post by Mr. Mohan Das Manandhar. Mohan is a visiting scholar in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. He can be reached at mohandas@mit.edu.

4 responses to “Dealing with Trauma Amidst the Nepal Earthquake”

  1. This essay is profound, giving readers, especially from other cultures, opportunity for growth in many aspects. Thank you. Just as it’s impossible to cross over from life to death and back, Mohan’s travels gives us otherwise impossible insights to crossing over from West to East and back. And from generation to generation. And from the past times we had to prepare and forward time to repair. This devastation is almost beyond comprehension for most of us. Except it can’t be. We all can share in the responsibility to repair and recover. It’s possible by taking a few of the emotional steps, Mohan suggests, that the frozen, hysterical or chaotic trauma will not be the end, but rather the start.

  2. Ellin Ruffner says:

    This is a powerful and beautifully written piece. I am a Disaster Mental Health Manager for the American Red Cross, where we pay close attention to these kinds of cultural differences with regard to trauma response. Trauma, by its very nature, makes one extraordinarily vulnerable. The ways that people respond to traumatic events does affect how they recover. I join you all in praying and hoping that the people of Nepal will receive the assistance they need…

  3. Julie (Britton) Von Berckefeldt says:

    Beautiful. Thank you for opening your heart to us. It’s not easy, I know. You will find great reward in doing this. I promise you. Your vulnerability invites others to do the same. Sometimes it takes a while, but many will be deeply and quietly grateful you spoke when they could not speak. It takes time to find our voice sometimes.

    : )

  4. I was very moved by your writing, and it’s an aspect of this ongoing tragedy that I have missed reading about elsewhere. Not only is counselling seen as excessive or taboo in many cultures, but it is not widely available or offered in times of extreme crisis like this. Kudos to you for writing about it, and for your compassionate voice. Thank you.