Social Worker Helps Immigrant Students Cope with Trauma

August 06, 2018

Desahogarse. It means to unburden. And it is the word most often used by Central American teens to describe the benefit of telling someone about the trauma they experienced in their homeland before coming to the United States.

Stephanie Carnes, a bilingual social worker at the Career and Technical Education Center at Putnam | Northern Westchester BOCES, presented her findings on the value of Desahogarse at the North American Refugee Health Conference in Portland, Oregon, in June.
In her work at the Tech Center, Carnes said she regularly encounters immigrant students who have experienced trauma in their country of origin. Some have witnessed murders, or encountered dead bodies in the streets or been subjected to physical or sexual abuse.

“These are everyday happenings in countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, so the students think that there is something wrong with them when they cannot erase these memories from their minds,” she said.

In an ideal world, these students would have access to intensive psychological counseling to help them overcome the trauma they have experienced. But more often, they not only cannot afford therapy, they do not even have the support of a parent or other caring adult because many have come to the United States on their own.

For her part, Carnes encourages the students to speak to her about what they have gone through and how they are feeling. To her surprise, simply talking about the events appears to help students recover from trauma.

When she asked students to describe what was helpful about talking to her, they all said the same thing: desagoharse, or the unburdening. Telling someone about traumatic events, even in a short-term counseling setting, has several effects.

First, it de-normalizes the event. Students come to realize that what they have experienced or witnessed is not normal. Children should not have to see what you saw.

Second, it educates the student about the effects of trauma. Third, it serves to honor the suffering they have experienced just by saying something like, “What an incredibly painful experience that must have been.” Finally, unburdening allows the student to celebrate his or her strength.

Carnes gathered data on 70 newly-arrived Central American students, with an eye toward developing a clinical approach that could be used in different settings as a “stop-gap” measure until resources become available for long-term trauma treatment.

The students, all of whom came from El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala, were surveyed about their exposure to traumatic events and the symptoms they were currently experiencing such as depression, recurrent memories, insomnia and nightmares.

Out of the 65 students who responded to the survey, 93 percent had exposure to at least one traumatic event. Sixty-three percent had been exposed to two or more traumatic events. Of the 38 students who had met with a social worker, all but two said it was helpful with their symptoms.

In the new school year, Carnes said she hopes to fine-tune the approach to help even more students, always being mindful not to push students to disclose anything they do not wish to discuss. “It is a 100 percent client-driven process. That’s a basic tenet of trauma-informed care,” Carnes said.