Puppet therapy

Saturday, 19 February 2011 00:46 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

This unique rehabilitation tool knits together torn lives

By Cassandra Mascarenhas

Puppetry as a form of post-trauma therapy in conflict-ridden areas – the mere idea of it seems like the product of an over-active imagination; yet research and studies have shown that this and other forms of performing arts can in fact help trauma victims deal with the shock and psychological aftereffects of distressing experiences.

Waterbirds International, an Isreali-Nigerian NGO headed by its CEO, Dr. Nira Kaplansky specializes in such forms of therapy and it has proved to be incredibly successful globally. In Sri Lanka on her seventh visit, Dr. Kaplansky in collaboration with the Sri Lankan non-profit organization ‘Sithum’ conducted a week-long workshop on puppet construction and manipulation, educating participants on the use of puppets for therapeutic purposes. This finally culminated in a session of puppet-playback theatre at the Russian Cultural Centre held last week, a multi-ethnic performance which overcame all cultural barriers and enthralled all present there with its diverse and highly original routine.

Dr. Kaplansky explained that her involvement in art therapy was in fact somewhat of an accident. First obtaining a degree as a social worker, she was then pushed into art therapy by a friend who felt that it would be good for her.

"When I started I had no idea what it was about at all. At the first session, I was so scared because they were asking us to do this crazy exercise – walking around, jumping on tables screaming! Half of the class consisted of people from the theatre and half of them were from the therapy field and we were studying together. Half of the class was totally crazy and they were all so free and the other, the side I was on, was so serious. And eventually we all gave into the crazy side all of us," she recounted, laughing at the memory.

Following this, she decided to do her PhD in post trauma and imagination. She began by researching a group of people that had been near death experiences – through which they had experienced visions, felt separated from their body and looked at themselves from above; very strange mystical experiences.

What Dr. Kaplansky hoped to identify through her research was why while most people suffered from post-trauma after harrowing experiences, how some managed to avoid it altogether. Her research produced some interesting results as it showed that people who had been studiously involved in arts – drawing, playing an instrument, doing drama in a very systematic matter, attending classes regularly as children over a certain period of time found it easier to deal with the shock.

After coming to these conclusions through her extensive research, she then decided to tie it up with the social services she conducted globally and started up the NGO, Waterbirds International in Israel. The NGO specializes in sharing knowledge on trauma treatment and stress management in countries in Africa and Asia, training facilitators in art therapy who in turn go on to work with communities and groups within their own countries.

One of the more innovative practices undertaken by the NGO is their post-trauma treatment through Skype to trauma victims, both children and adults, in Africa.

"This has proved to be an unbelievably effective tool. We can easily access remote areas without having to be there in person. It is run according to a certain protocol and is very organized and governments are generally very proactive and for good reason. Post-trauma can result in alcohol and drug abuse which is a catalyst for violence. Such therapy keeps the community healthy and is a small investment to make when you consider the repercussions or the social price that the community will have to pay in the future without it," Dr. Kaplansky explained.

Waterbirds International has conducted such programmes in many countries globally including Nigeria, South Africa, Costa Rica and now Sri Lanka. Dr. Kaplansky first came to Sri Lanka after the tsunami, when she was brought in along with a huge group of professionals by another NGO she worked with at the time to conduct post-trauma treatment for those affected by the disaster.

After making several contacts here, she ended up returning to the country time and time again, working with people here to facilitate the use of art therapy as a form of post-trauma treatment. The response so far has been fantastic with people from different backgrounds all coming together to foster art therapy, from psychology students from Aquinas College to employees from Brandix all of whom hope to work together with Waterbirds and Sithum to spread the use of art therapy as post-trauma treatment across the country in the wake of the civil conflict.