We have just arrived at a classroom in Denham Town, Kingston when an excited boy runs outside. Afew moments later he bolts back into the room, and soon after he is calmly leading a host of other young children in relaxation techniques.
“Breathe deep!” he instructs, and everyone follows his lead – taking a long breath in and then exhaling together.
These primary school children are participating in ‘Bounce Back’ sessions, which are designed to help them recover after having been screened for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), caused by exposure to violence or from being victims themselves. UNICEF partner Fight for Peace is supporting the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Clinic led by child psychologist Dr Ganesh Shetty in delivering weekly Bounce Back sessions in Parade Gardens, Denham Town and Trench Town.
Kids recovering from PTSD, their way
Each session caters to 25 children and is facilitated by community members. During the sessions children get to take part in a range of cognitive and behavioural exercises. What they enter in their workbook – their words and pictures – is then analysed to determine their state of mind.
Art and music activities help the children express and unburden themselves. Their drawings help to reveal their mental state, such as the presence of fruit indicating that the child has positive thoughts about their future.
“Bounce Back gives them space to be children, to help them develop ways to cope. A lot of these kids are robbed of their childhood or exposed to violence like witnessing domestic violence and gun violence at school, experiencing physical, emotional and sexual abuse,” says Dr Shetty.
A space where they are free to be children
“Trauma is when bad things happen to kids like bullying, death, bad things happen in your community, and when you are being punished or beaten for things you didn’t do,” explains one girl.
Another boy leans in, “It hurts your feelings.”
“It can make your heart beat faster,” adds a girl.
“It can happen to anybody,” concludes a boy.
Learning to understand and express emotions
John Earle explains that the sessions help children learn how to distinguish between their emotions and how they manifest in reacting to a situation.
“It’s hard for them to distinguish because they don’t have high emotional maturity. Culturally, when you go into a community and ask people how they feel they will often shrug and tell you ‘Me nuh feel no way’. So children are taught to suppress themselves like that,” says Fight for Peace lead pscyhologist John-Earle Spence.
“They’re not encouraged to explore or understand their emotions as children. At home the slightest annoyance that they give to their parents might lead them to get a slap. So they learn from their environment that violence is acceptable as a response.”
Children who had learned violence is ‘OK’
He recalls observing a class when a teacher handed out pencils. Upon reaching the end of the box, she turned around to collect another from her desk. However, a boy upon seeing another get the last pencil immediately punched him and took it.
Explaining why, the boy shrugged and said, “Because he took the last one.”
“Of course,the other boy had actually been given the last pencil versus ‘he took it’. But his thinking tells him that the other boy unjustly took it, which leads to a feeling of being wronged,” says John Earle. “Putting myself in his shoes and what he has been shown in life, then if I feel wronged I feel justified in defending myself; and my way of defending myself is punching the other child and taking the pencil that I deserve.”
Sustainable model can be replicated in Jamaica
Fight for Peace, which operates in six downtown Kingston communities, hopes that the Bounce Back model can be replicated elsewhere with training. Then the interventions can be sustained over time without the need to bring in or wait for the availability of specialists.
“Fun, exciting, happy, everything,” is how one child describes the sessions. “If it coulda keep every day I woulda come even on Saturday,” he says with a smile.