A light in the dark for trauma victims

Anna Els works at the Muizenberg SAPS trauma room.

She may be only one person, but Anna Els – trauma counsellor at Muizenberg SAPS – is no ordinary person. She deals with the effects of trauma across multiple levels of the diverse Muizenberg community.

She quickly dispels the notion that trauma and domestic abuse are only found in poor communities.

Trauma, she says, is any physical or mental problem that interferes with your daily routine. It doesn’t matter that you
haven’t been tied up and robbed at
gunpoint or witnessed a gang shootout; if your financial security is threatened or you have flashbacks to border wars you have never discussed since your conscription days – it is all relative, she says.

Anna has been there for shell-shocked families at many accident and murder scenes, for the aftermath of suicides, and for victims of the most gruesome cases of domestic abuse.

But she is no agony auntie: her boundaries are set and her role is clear. It has to be for her to be of proper service.

“I am often the one to have to say hard but necessary things, and often what I say is not easy to hear.
But I am here to help people, not fix their situations. I can advise, but they have to take that first step,” she says.

Does she see justice? Is there – amid all this overwhelming tragedy – still hope?

“Oh yes,” she says. “The wheels do turn. And there is always help on hand. Always.

When you take that first step, your entire world can change. But you have to do it, nobody can make you.” She says that sometimes the saddest thing is having to teach people to understand that what is happening to them is wrong in the first place – that for so many people the cycle of violence and abuse has become normalised.

They have seen it around them their whole lives; they have no concept of a life beyond it.”

She describes layers of trauma that are woven throughout the Muizenberg community – poverty, exposure to violence, lack of education.

“What is overlooked is this: when you are stressed your body is flooded with cortisol. When you have that rush of cortisol, your brain is in fight or flight. This interferes with learning.

It’s applicable in a single event or incident: a shooting or accident. But imagine the accumulative effect, of living with the violence of domestic abuse or a family affected by drug or alcohol addiction?”

Aside from her one-on-one counselling, Annabelieves employers need to shift their focus from managing crisis to promoting wellness.

“If, as a boss or manager, your own stresses are unchecked, then there is no way your staff are being catered for,” she says.

“Your staff are the face of your business. If their stresses are ignored, absenteeism will continue to climb, so will the effects of unchecked trauma. There is clear evidence now that severe stress will express itself in various forms of illness.”

Encouraging employee wellness, she says, might just head much of the actual trauma off at the pass.

“Addressing stresses, especially mental stressors, and learning healthy coping mechanisms will eventually create healthier, more empowered communities,” she says.

* Anna can be reached at 073 355 6807.