In This Issue

Constitución Revisited

Ana Lia Stutman, translated by Susan Mailer, reviews her follow-up trip to this Chilean city, devastated in last year’s earthquake. She describes her work with 18 high school students who were doing poorly academically and showing signs of post traumatic stress in the aftermath of the earthquake.

By Ana Lia Stutman

In November we took our second trip to Constitucion having received a new proposal from the headmaster of the school. Originally we had thought we would continue our consultations with the children we had seen in June, but instead we were asked to interview high school students who were doing poorly academically and showing signs of post traumatic stress. We agreed to go, concerned about the pressures these adolescents were experiencing, especially in light of their upcoming University Entrance exams. Luckily, we were able also to schedule a meeting with the children of our first visit, as well as their parents. The school principal informed us that the parents had become more involved in school activities, working with teachers to help their children cope with the after-effects of the earthquake. Those children with serious emotional problems were being treated on a weekly basis in a nearby city.

This visit involved working with 18 adolescents whose ages ranged from 15 to 18, in a series of four sessions – two group meetings and two individual sessions. We first listened to them in open interviews without making direct references to the earthquake. They seemed to be more distant, at least consciously, from the events that had shaken the society in February. Time had helped them return to their psychosocial adolescent concerns, and it was interesting to observe how in the midst of a barely reconstructed city they were preoccupied with usual adolescent themes such as fear of the upcoming SAT, and anger at their parents and school authorities. After the initial interview we were able, in group sessions, to work with the stories these kids had to tell.

We defined three main groups of kids:

a) Those who had maladjusted families, with a missing father and over-worked mother, suffered from lack of acknowledgment from their parents, especially from the missing one.

b) Those who came from families that had been struck by secondary effects of the earthquake, such as unemployment, lack of housing, loss of personal property and home, were forced to live in cramped conditions with relatives, often separated from several members of their families. Overcrowded conditions and the interfamily conflicts that erupted produced a lack of attention to the youngster’s needs, many of whom became the supporting pillars of their families.

c) Those with previous character pathologies were left without protection and in precarious emotional states, which led to more symptoms such as impulsivity, anger, and serious acting out.

Our experiences with the children whom we first saw in June and the adolescents with whom we came into contact in November differed in interesting ways. The young children were able to express their fears of relived trauma through play and drawings. Their defenses and environmental supports were condensed and expressed through play even though we usually didn’t have much access to verbal accounts. They used magical resources while playing and were usually more protected by the adult community.

Our contact with the adolescents showed a different picture. They spoke of hunger and shame at having to ask for food, fight for the government aid, and at having to accept used clothes . Many of them had to take on a supporting role in their family putting aside their own needs. In general they were left to deal with their fears in silence and it was only through their acting out in school that adults and teachers were able to come to their support.

translated by Susan Mailer, MA, Psychoanalyst