Boingboing blogs from… the Resilience Forum!

The Survivor to Thriver (S2T) strengths-based group intervention: promoting resilience and posttraumatic growth outcomes in women survivors of childhood sexual abuse in South Africa – Prof Anise Fouché & Dr Hayley Walker-Williams, Brighton Resilience Forum – Monday 13 June 2016

by David Glynne-Percy, PhD student, University of Brighton

On 13 June I attended another excellent Boingboing Resilience Forum on the Survivor to Thriver strengths-based group intervention promoting resilience & enabling posttraumatic growth in women who experienced childhood sexual abuse in South Africa. This Forum was presented by two guest speakers, Dr Hayley Walker-Williams and Professor Anise Fouché from the School of Behavioural Sciences, Psychology/Social Work at the North West University, Vanderbijlpark, in South Africa.

As is customary at these events, all present at the Resilience Forum (a good 20 of us at least) were encouraged to briefly introduce ourselves. This once again revealed a rich mix of academics, students and practitioners/volunteers from charities and organisations – indicating that these Boingboing events are increasingly attracting a substantial cross-section of experience and perspectives.

As a PhD student researching the benefit of extra-curricular activity for building resilience in children facing adversity I came to the Forum as a means of gaining further knowledge and hopefully understanding of something which had impacted on my own life indirectly.

Dr Walker-Williams and Professor Fouché confirmed the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) as a global phenomenon, and a meta-analysis undertaken in 22 countries showed that between 18 and 20% of women and 8 to 9% of men are victims of this. Furthermore, one in three young people had experienced some form of sexual abuse. It is important at this juncture to point out that sexual abuse includes being told, “I want to touch your breasts!” or similar provocative language. Having worked for a time as a behaviour officer on a school playground such comments were reported to me on a weekly basis, but Professor Fouché explained to me afterwards that the criteria for sexual abuse lay in the exaggerated difference in age between those making the comment and those receiving it – something which never occurred in the school playground where I worked (to my knowledge).

I found these figures of global sexual abuse shocking and the term “epidemic” was used in the presentation. Whether the increasing numbers are due to victims feeling more empowered to report such abuse, or simply the increasing occurrence, was not specified. Whatever the cause of such prevalence, the impact of CSA is traumatic with multi-dimensional negative impacts including mental health difficulties, sexual disorder, and stigmatisation. Whilst some victims may possess a natural disposition or resilience to recover from this adversity the vast majority of victims do not recover independently. The traditional approaches to CSA treatment have been within a pathogenic or deficit paradigm which focusses on symptom reduction to achieve a return to (quasi) normative functioning.

The model here is to “repair what is broken”.  But Walker-Williams and Fouché ask, “Can strengths be borne from some women’s CSA struggle?” Intriguingly they pose the question can the victim’s social-ecology facilitate recovery? This is a strength-based approach which uses the individual’s positive traits as well as supportive ecologies to aid recovery. This is a Posttraumatic Growth Model and represents a paradigm shift from pathogenic to salutogenic treatment. That is to say, recognising that strengths and resources can be borne from adversity or struggle, and that these should be seen as opportunities for growth. A strength-based model of resilience includes exposure to adversity but with a successful adaptation to that adversity through heightened emotional awareness (emotional intelligence), adaptive coping, and accessing internal and external resources.

Walker-Williams and Fouché’s research involved 18 women (9 black and 9 white) between the ages of 18 and 50, of which 12 women completed the course. Each participant had experienced physical sexual abuse and knew their perpetrator. The intervention lasted 3-6 months and included audiotaped sessions, thematic content analysis of these sessions. From these individual narratives Walker-Williams & Fouché were able to promote enabling processes through constructive rumination, decisive action, healing group context and an expert companion to produce growth outcomes. This shift from survivor to thriver identity or post-trauma identity may be illustrated in the following quote from one of the participants who elegantly said, “I’ve come from a used person to be the queen of my world.”

This research reiterated for me the potency of story-telling and how the telling can be transformative in overcoming adversity. Of course the resilience of the structures and ecologies supporting the story teller are also co-authors of the story.

Perhaps for me the two points that came through most fervently were the following, a) strengths cannot be reflected upon without initial disclosure and crisis treatment undertaken, and b) the group discussion between fellow survivors and an “expert” companion as navigator can facilitate a group cohesion of “sisterhood” and a sense of belonging to other survivor to thrivers, from which these thrivers can become advocates in the community.

Walker-Williams and Fouché advocate further developments of their strength-based study by establishing its long-term efficacy through  longitudinal research, which they initiated in November 2014, advancing international collaboration with an aim to train helping professionals (navigators) both in South Africa and elsewhere. Their initial conclusions are positive: despite ongoing issues such as hindered sexual intimacy, participants revealed transformational changes in their view of themselves and a desire to continue on a strength-based trajectory towards emancipation.

I am indebted to Dr Walker-Williams and Professor Fouché for their presentation, which for me held such a positive message in the face of great trauma. Taking ownership of the story by wrestling the pen from the fingers of the perpetrators, the stressors, the causes of adversity, may enable victims through community support, to compose the final chapter. To bounce back and perhaps forward.

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