Midweek Review

The counsellor’s role: a response
by Anne Abayasekara

It was with much interest--and some surprise--that I read Dr. Athula Sumathipala's reply in The Island of Wednesday, 1st March 2005, to my article on "The counsellor's role in times of crises and tragedy" which appeared in the Daily News of February 05, 2005. It is ironical that I have no ground for quarrel with the main content of the doctor's article in The Island and if he re-reads my own article objectively, he will see that this is so. But I am surprised-–unpleasantly so--by his opening sentence in which he accuses me of having misquoted him and that my article is "full of misinformation." If by the word `misinformation' he refers to my quoting his words at a press briefing as reported in the Daily News of January 5, I hope I may be excused for reproducing here the gist of that report since it is unlikely that readers will remember it at this late date:

I quote: "No counselling or medication would be needed for the first six weeks to the large number of persons, especially children, who were psychologically affected by the tsunami disaster and lost their loved ones... their psychological trauma reaction is a natural phenomenon, but those having a past history of psychological illness would need counselling... Dr. Sumathipala said that this is a catastrophic situation which will result in expressions of grief and shock and could manifest in a variety of ways and and with varied symptoms. Sleeplessness, nightmares, tremors, chest pain, other somatic symptoms, will be commonplace as well as hysterical reactions, but under the prevailing circumstances, these are natural reactions, he said. Abnormal grief reactions and depression will not manifest until very much later... Where children are concerned, it is important to advise that children are not allowed to talk about their feelings, are protected if possible from an endless repetition of the events of the tsunami, especially watching TV news coverage, Dr. Sumathipala said."

My article was written in response to some of the controversial statements contained in that news report. The reader accepts such a report on its face value and has no way of knowing that there is inaccuracy or distortion--except where the person to whom the words are attributed is personally known to the reader who can categorically say, "I know this person--he would never have said what he is reported to have said." I hadn't heard of Dr. Sumathipala before, any more than he had heard of me. It might interest Dr. Sumathipala to learn that I had missed reading the news item referred to above. It had, however, been a talking point among some counsellors who had read it and two of them, both highly reputed counsellors, holding genuine post-graduate qualifications from abroad and with years of experience locally, drew my attention to what Dr. Sumathipala was purported to have said, according to the Daily News report. I wrote in good faith, going on the words printed in the newspaper. If he had been misreported, it was a matter that had to be taken up with the Editor of that paper. If the correction that was certainly Dr. Sumathipala's due, was in fact made, it is regrettable that neither I nor anyone else I know, saw it, nor dpes Dr. S himself appear to have read the correction since he says "I believed this was done." In the event, Dr. S's charging me with being "unethical" and "cruel" seems to be far-fetched, for it is a serious matter if a responsbile newspaper carries a garbled report as the doctor alleges. I'd have thought it was important enough for Dr. Sumathipala to have made sure a correction appeared and to have noted the date of the correction even if he did not keep a cutting of it for himself. My article appeared on February 5, one whole month after the report of January 5th which I quoted and on which my article was based.

Any trained counsellor is fully cognizant of the danger of inappropriate interventions in a crisis and the harm they could do. I don't know whether Dr. Sumathipala is acquainted with the kind of training that counsellors undergo, for even without reference to the publications he quotes, they are keenly aware that only "fools rush in where angels fear to tread." The tsunami disaster was that kind of delicate situation and if he read what I wrote, he would realize that I made the point that counsellors should in no way thrust themselves on grieving people, but that they should be available and accessible to those who felt they needed to unburden themselves. Counsellors do not generally take on clients suffering from abnormal behaviours or mental illness. They refer them to the appropriate experts.

The Daily News had terminated my article rather abruptly, maybe for lack of space. I would like to give here my concluding paragraph which was omitted from that article. I thought it very relevant to quote from The Island of January 12 which carried an article headed: "They needed to say: my family is dead". It was a comment made by Hungarian doctors who treated tsunami victims in the south, who were quoted as having said: "All they needed was to talk, or say hello, or simply to say, ‘My family is dead'". That was the kind of emotional human need that moved me to write challenging Dr. S's alleged assertion that there was no need for counselling of tsunami victims in the first six weeks.

Dr. Sumathipala questions my motives in writing as I did. He concludes his own "rebuttal" (as he termed it), with a saying of Abraham Lincoln's to the effect that "To sin by silence when they should protest, makes cowards of men" (and women!). I wrote my article only because I felt that a response (I won't say `rebuttal') was necessary and I could not keep silent when comments with which I totally disagreed were publicly attributed to somebody, however distinguished he might be.


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