NI therapist supporting people in war-torn Ukraine with new trauma therapy

Pearl Ellis, a Lisburn-based therapist, talks to HELEN MCGURK about training clinicians in Ukraine so they can help soldiers and civilians deal with the psychological impact of war

By Helen McGurk
Wednesday, 13th April 2022, 12:52 pm
Pearl Ellis has been training clinicians in Ukraine in the use of the new therapy
Pearl Ellis has been training clinicians in Ukraine in the use of the new therapy

The war in Ukraine, like other conflicts around the world, will mean millions of people going through horrific and traumatic events. Some may go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, experiencing psychological distress for months or even years afterwards.

Therapist Pearl Ellis, who has a base in the Resurgam Healthy Living Centre in Lisburn, was part of team of trainers bringing a new therapy called Reconsolidated Traumatic Memory (RTM) to clinicians in Ukraine and Poland, who will support the treatment of people experiencing PTSD.

Pearl, a BACP accredited psychotherapist and licenced RTM practitioner, explained PTSD can manifest in a number of ways.

Sign up to our public interest bulletins - get the latest news on the Coronavirus

Many survivors of conflict can experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

“The two most common ways are either numbing out, not able to feel anything and feeling disconnected from reality. The other way is experiencing recurrent flashbacks and nightmares.

“This therapy (RTM) can help by disconnecting the memory from the trauma response, that is the flight, fright or freeze reaction. People find they sleep better, nightmares and flashbacks stop, often after just the first treatment session.”

RTM was developed in the US by Dr Frank Bourke and was initially devised to respond to the trauma experienced by the World Trade Survivors of 9/11.

It is a therapy that uses a brief process of two or three sessions involving questions and visualisations to retrieve and then alter a memory using a dissociation strategy. It has been shown in multiple clinical trials to achieve a 90 per cent efficacy rate for remission of PTSD symptoms, including nightmares and flashbacks, in less than half the time of current therapies.

Clinicians go through a rigorous training process provided by the Research and Recognition Project (R&R Project), a New York State not-for-profit corporation, chaired by Dr. Bourke.

He said: “All of us at the R&R Project are honoured to have been asked to provide this training (in Ukraine) so that they can help people who are suffering incredible psychological trauma from the atrocities they are witnessing in their country.

“I provided the protocol...to hundreds of victims of the 9/11 disaster in NYC and have seen first-hand the positive effects it has on people who have recently been part of an overwhelming disaster.”

Pearl was the only person from Northern Ireland to be part of the international team who engaged with training clinicians in Ukraine.

She said: “We supplied the training online between March 18 and April 3. There were 28 clinicians from Ukraine attending.

“I was in awe at the tenacity, courage, and generosity of spirit shown by the Ukrainian team and the team of therapists led by Dr Lisa de Rijk, King’s College London, was a truly humbling experience.”

Dr de Rijk explained she had been contacted by a leading psychologist in Poland, who has also been trained in RTM, asking if clinicians in Poland and Ukraine could be trained in the protocol to enable them to treat some of the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians who are suffering from PTSD as a result of the atrocities of war.

She said; “I was overwhelmed with the professionalism and caring of the clinicians that we are training in Poland and Ukraine.

“I have helped train numerous clinicians, but this class is truly special.

“Our sessions were literally brought to a halt on several occasions because a number of the participants had to excuse themselves to run to air raid shelters as we could hear the air raid sirens blaring in the background.”

Pearl added: “Hospitals are very unsafe in Ukraine as they are targeted by Russians. They (the clinicians) will deliver the therapy online or in local community settings.

“Two therapists have already been in touch with us to discuss their use of it with women who have been raped (by Russian soldiers).

“Another person was a refugee from her sister. She was having lots of nightmares and only sleeping two to three hours a night, even though she and her family were now in a safe place.”

Pearl said the therapy is useful for treating people aged 16 upwards.

“We have one of our team who is a qualified child and adolescent therapist and can supervise therapists in Ukraine if they are trained to work with children using this therapy.”

She added the therapy is also beneficial to people in Northern Ireland, including those affected by the troubles.

““We have already used it in my workplace. Lots of our community are still experiencing nightmares, flashbacks and relationship problems because of their PTSD.

“They might be using drink or drugs to cope. They might be on tablets for depression or anxiety.

“I continue to use RTM with clients presenting with trauma from the troubles or sexual assault.

“If the person is experiencing a fight/flight response, and following assessment, RTM is a highly effective non re-traumatising therapeutic process.”