A Field Hospital for the Traumatised

by Annemarie Paulin-Campbell


The Department of Health recently reported that more than 6.5 million people in South Africa need professional mental health care. Of this, they said, 1.3 million people need help for severe psychiatric conditions. However, we only have facilities and personnel to cater for 0.3 percent of people who need help. In the annual mental state of the world report from Sapien Labs, South Africa scored the lowest average score on the mental health wellbeing scale.


The intergenerational legacy of apartheid, violent crime, alarming rates of gender-based violence, as well as crises like the Covid pandemic, the July 2021 riots and the floods in KZN have all contributed to high levels of trauma.


Even those of us who have been fortunate to not have had a seriously traumatic experience may be vicariously traumatised because we are close to others who have. We all carry the burden of living in a traumatised society.


The impact of trauma can make it difficult to function. One may experience flashbacks, nightmares, an inability to focus, difficulty sleeping and physical illnesses. Trauma can result in chronic anxiety or depression. It can also lead to escaping the pain through alcohol or substance abuse addictions.


Trauma can impact our relationships with others and our ability to relate to God. We may feel that God is powerless or has abandoned us. It can be difficult to pray because in times of silence we may battle with intrusive memories of our trauma. We might be aggressive and irritable ­– and that can alienate others around us when we most need their support.


There should be easily accessible counselling for all, and we need to advocate for more resources in the area of mental health. We also need to address the root causes of many of the societal problems that result in trauma.


While all of this is critical, the church should be a safe place for healing to take place.  Pope Francis’ image of the church as a “field hospital” is powerful. He says: “the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful… and you have to start from the ground up. Instead”, he says, “the church has sometimes locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.” [1]


This misplaced focus on rules is evident in the experience of people I accompany who have left the church because they have felt misunderstood, judged and unwelcome at moments in their lives when they were most pained and vulnerable.


All too often our churches are places where people can experience additional trauma because they feel excluded or judged. Our church community should be a place of loving welcome, safety and healing for traumatised people and many who are battling under the weight of life’s burdens.


Ultimately the church should be a place where God’s healing touch can be experienced through the ministry of the attentive presence of each one of us. We are the church and it is up to us to create that safely for each other. How will you help your church community to become the “field hospital” Pope Francis urges us to be?


[1] From “A big heart open to God.” America Magazine 2013.

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