What to do with the need to help

Several thousand people are currently arriving as refugees in Finland and these people are in distress. This prompted Finnish Psychologists for Social Responsibility (FiPSR) to submit a proposal for the provision of psychosocial support services to refugees to the City of Helsinki.

With so many distressed people coming here it feels impossible to behave as if everything is as it was before, as if nothing has changed. There is an urgency and a pressure to “do something”, to respond. At the same time it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task, by not knowing where to start and by efforts to join forces with existing organisations getting stuck in the quagmire of the excessive demands and overload they are facing.

Responses to previous crisis situations have taught us that the urge to “do something” easily finds expression in ill-considered actions that may serve the needs of “helpers” rather than those in distress. Presumably being a refugee means that one’s boundaries have been violated, often repeatedly. This calls for caution when reaching out to refugees.

Apart from prudent caution we may hold back because we feel daunted by the real and perceived barriers to reaching out. There are barriers within ourselves: introverts are probably disproportionally represented in the psychology profession, making it difficult for many of us to initiate contact. There are cultural differences, the lack of a shared spoken language, the practical restrictions that come with overcrowded facilities and people being in the centres temporarily, making it difficult to build trust. Many refugees are men and the majority of psychologists in this country are women; how do gender differences interlock with cultural factors and possibly complicate contact?

Having helped to write the PSR proposal I think about ways to put the ideas that are on paper into practice. Focusing on the above-mentioned differences I soon feel like I am walking blindfolded in a swamp at night.

So to move away from the brink of paralysis and encourage myself I think of moments in my life when it was possible to connect with people even though the barriers initially felt insurmountable. In those moments my deepest motivation was an interest in the other and in the emerging process between us when fears, the pressure to reach some goal or achieve something did not clutter up the connection. These are the moments when being seen and heard displaces loneliness and isolation. And as I remember a space opens up within me; ideas begin to evolve and excitement grows. And I know that I have the skills, knowledge and experience to contribute meaningfully to the society I live in even though I, too am a newcomer here – like the refugees.

Gudrun Kober

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