Clergy mental health
In 2005 while working for Anglicare, I was given a return ticket to South Sudan (where I am originally from) and Kenya (where I was priested and served as a youth leader in a refugee camp). The trip was for four weeks. While there, I was a witness to the signing of the peace agreement between North and South Sudan.
During the trip, I went to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where I had lived for nine years, to see how peace was being received and to gain an understanding of people’s perception of their chance of repatriation back to South Sudan. I also visited my home village of Bor, where my family came from.
When I returned home to Toowoomba, I found I was greatly troubled by the things I had seen, including starvation, orphans without care, and many people who had lost everything and had little hope for the future despite the historic peace agreement. All these things triggered in me the traumatic experiences I had been through as a ‘Lost Boy of Sudan’ in my youth.
During my month-long trip, people in the Kenyan refugee camp thought that as I was returning from the Western world that I had everything to solve their problems, but I could not overcome the massive difficulties my people now had. As a result, I felt a huge burden of guilt! I recognised that I needed some help. As I was sharing my report with my Anglicare supervisor, and relating the difficulties I was having, she suggested I see a counsellor to help me work through the stress and guilt.
So, what happened was this. I had never seen a counsellor before and wondered what he or she could do for me? I also had some doubts if counselling would help me. Culturally, it was difficult to admit that I was not a man in control of my own problems. So, this counselling process was completely at odds with what I had been brought up to expect. However, I also knew from what I had read and witnessed that if help isn’t sought with such trauma that violence or substance abuse can result.
I don’t really know how to describe the counselling sessions. Perhaps it might seem odd, but I had the feeling as we went along that I needed to vomit – to get rid of something. However, just what that was and how that might work I could not tell. What I started to realise as I talked in the many sessions was that I was emptying myself and I began to find some coping mechanisms that were starting to work for me as we talked through things. This took a long time, spread over weeks then months and even years. As time went on, we developed a relationship where I felt safe to share everything. This was something I had never done before. I learnt from the process that this was most beneficial for me – and something I had never imagined possible at the start of the counselling process. All this was a new and different way of doing things for me in my cultural setting. Seeking help through counselling is often seen as a sign of weakness in my culture and something to be hidden from others.
I am sure that as time goes by that sharing this experience may help others in need in my community. In addition to the benefit of counselling for me personally, is the realisation that I, too, can be an agent of change in my new position where I am called by God’s grace to work with culturally diverse congregations and those they interact with in parishes in our Diocese.
What I have taken away from this experience has also led me to start a degree in Humans Services with a Counselling Major. I trust that one day I may have the same skills to share to help others as I was helped in a very difficult time.