Democratic Republic of the Congo: More than the Sum of its Traumas

Democratic Republic of the Congo: More than the Sum of its Traumas

Kimberly Spray is a BSN, RN, CEN who has worked in emergency medicine for 20 years in the United States RN Response Network. She has also worked in Sierra Leone during the 2014-15 Ebola crisis with Partners in Health, and most recently in the DRC with Global Outreach Doctors. All this while raising an amazing daughter and working towards her Master’s degrees in Humanitarian Health and Health Care Innovation.


It seems only fitting that this year’s World Humanitarian Day is dedicated specifically to the women humanitarians. I say fitting because for three weeks, I had the opportunity to witness the strength, tenacity, and endurance of women in the South Kivu District of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). I went with Global Outreach Doctors (GoDocs) on a project to assess healthcare centers’ ability to treat victims of gender-based violence (GBV). The women we met and the stories we heard revealed the indelible spirit they each possess to overcome so much. Perhaps even more significantly, these women also prove that the DRC is more than just the horror stories that seem to personify it.  


Although gender-based violence is rampant in the DRC, there is almost no mental health care provided to those experiencing severe trauma from the decades-long war. According to the World Health Organization (WHO, 2016), there is only one psychiatrist for every 1 million people in the DRC, a number that is woefully inadequate. Increasing access to mental health care will benefit the communities and ensure that healthcare centers provide care that goes beyond treating merely the physical symptoms. In the past when patients presented with abdominal pain, headaches, etc., they were treated only for the physical manifestations of their sickness, rather than addressing the root cause of the issue, which is often mental health induced. After the GoDocs team offered proven screening tools for depression and trauma assessment to the Congolese medical providers, they were able to identify those patients presenting with depressive or traumatic symptoms clinically. The goal now is to work towards providing patients with care that will support them more long-term and treat both the physical and underlying mental components.


One woman I met at the center began throwing herself on the ground in a way that led me to believe her ailments were more than just physical. The people surrounding the woman while she was in this state brushed her actions off as merely “foolish” and suggested I not bother with her. As an emergency nurse, I believed her behavior was indicative of something deeper beneath the surface, and she was probably in need of more specialized care. I brought her to the doctor who has since worked to ensure she receives psychiatric care rather than be ignored and brushed aside. With the proper care that treats her mental scars with the same level of attention used to treat her physical ones, this young woman can be a thriving member of her community again. I wish this for all of the women, and the men, suffering similar hidden wounds in the DRC. Too often, men are not considered in GBV discussions beyond their role as the perpetrators. Men can also be victims of violence directly or indirectly. They suffer when the women in their lives are violated.


Thanks to the work of our partners, mental healthcare for all affected members of their community could be a reality. We had the opportunity to meet with multiple groups and organizations, and we look forward to stewarding these relationships for continued joint efforts. The partners included Panzi Hospital, where Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Dennis Mukwege works, Hero Women Rising, heralded by the inspiring Neema Namadamu, the Free Methodist Church hospitals, and Airlink. Airlink’s expertise in coordinating and securing travel for our team, with the generous aid of Brussels and United airlines, ensured we could focus all of our resources and energy on the work on the ground. We were fortunate not to be preoccupied with the often daunting logistics required to implement projects such as ours.

It is impossible to adequately describe the pervasive nature of the trauma experienced by such a significant number of a population from a violent conflict spanning decades. Our GoDoc team met with stories ranging in their form of violence towards women and girls as young as infants. But because of the work our partners are doing, I believe there is a reason for hope. A country is more than the sum of its traumas. On this World Humanitarian Day, I am thankful for the amazing women and men that I met who make me believe there is a possibility for redemption in even the harshest contexts.

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