Member Article

Positive Psychology for Tsunami Survivors

Two days after the Southeast Asia tsunami hit, Bangkok-based psychologist Dominique Norz contacted Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, asking for help. Norz was then a participant in Seligman’s Authentic Happiness Coaching teleconference course. She hoped that Thai mental health professionals could be trained to use the concepts and interventions of positive psychology in their work with tsunami survivors. Seligman shared her optimism that “positive psychology may help focus attention toward hope in the wake of trauma.” From that initial contact, postdoctoral research fellow Tayyab Rashid and I, both researchers in Seligman’s lab, volunteered to research, write, and travel to Thailand to administer workshops that integrated concepts from positive psychology into emergency response training. In preparing the broad framework of our training curriculum, we addressed several key issues. First, we were careful to adhere to international crisis assistance guidelines, specifically, the World Health Organization recommendations for mental health in emergencies (van Ommeren et al., 2005) and the Guidelines for International Trauma Training by the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (Weine et al., 2002). Second, to ensure cultural sensitivity and relevance, we tailored our training materials to the local context, needs, and available resources of mental health professionals working both in Bangkok and in the hard-hit Phuket and Phang Nga regions. In addition, we scheduled training time with participants to discuss the cultural appropriateness of the program and to make culture-specific modifications.

Third, we addressed the sensitive timing of presenting positively oriented materials: We emphasized that positive interventions should not be used at the expense of attention to suffering, and are appropriate only after first meeting individuals’ acute physical and psychological needs. Finally, we planned for follow-up supervision and for the sustainability of the program via continued collaboration with trainees from Bangkok’s Psychological Services International (PSI).

The content of our training curriculum ranged from positive psychology’s newly articulated concepts to its well-established theoretical and empirical roots. We used the Values in Action (VIA) classification of universal strengths and virtues to identify and cultivate participants’ “signature strengths” (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). These strengths, such as generosity, creativity, and humor, operate as a buffer against misfortune and the experience of negative emotion (Seligman, 2002). We also incorporated elements of the posttraumatic growth research of Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi (1999, 2000), progressive relaxation and meditation techniques, and resilience and optimism skill training (Gillham et al., 1995).

We led two 2-day workshops in early March, 2005; the first workshop was geared toward working with adult survivors, the second training focused on working with children. The 15 to 20 participants in each workshop, a mix of Thai natives and expatriates from Europe and North America, consisted primarily of clinical psychologists, social workers, psychotherapists, and school psychologists. Because English is widely spoken in Thailand and is the country’s second official language, the trainings were conducted in English without translation. Local Thai organizations donated many of the workshop’s necessities: Meeting space was provided by Bangkok Patana School, lunch and refreshments were provided by Psychological Services International, and accommodations for Rashid and I were donated by Bangkok General Hospital. In addition, Robert Fazio, president of the US-based nonprofit organization “Hold the Door for Others,” donated written and audio-visual resources on coping with trauma for participants to use after the trainings.

In the months since the workshops, a number of participants have continued to correspond with us, emailing to troubleshoot specific client challenges and to share successes. Among the latter, the projects manager of the World Youth Peace Summit has integrated the VIA strengths perspective into his tsunami relief volunteer trainings, and one participant, Camarin Sachdeva, received permission from the VIA copyright holder and is nearly finished translating the classification into Thai. In addition, several practitioners report using positive interventions successfully with individuals affected by the tsunami as well as with relief workers at risk for secondary traumatization.

The above examples, and others like them, have strengthened my belief that positive psychology has the potential to enrich trauma relief work, and that this application is deserving of further exploration.


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