The Human Face of Torture
For Marianne Christiansen, volunteering to help victims of torture changed her life -- and the way she teaches.
YEARS ago, Marianne Christiansen wouldn't have thought anything about flicking off the lights before showing a video to her students. Now she knows it's best to warn them before plunging everyone into darkness.
These days, many students who hail from other countries are refugees who have fled their homes after experiencing untold suffering, including torture. For those students, says Christiansen, associate professor of occupational therapy at St. Kate's, simple things like a dark room can become an instant and vivid reminder of terrible times.
"We have a lot of classrooms without windows, and a torture survivor who has been in a cell may have a lot of trouble with that," Christiansen says. "Even a closed classroom door can make some students uncomfortable."
Helping people with daily life
Christiansen, director of the College's Occupational Therapy Assistant Program, knows a lot about how the pain of torture continues long past the time it was inflicted. During a 2001 sabbatical, she volunteered for six months at the Center for Victims of Torture, a Minneapolis-based organization that provides supportive care to torture survivors from around the world.
The decision to devote time to the Center came to Christiansen in a roundabout way. Realizing that so many of the students in her classes were immigrants and refugees, Christiansen wanted to find a volunteer opportunity where she could learn more about a particular ethnic group. She chose Somali. But then a guest speaker, a psychologist from the Center, came to the College to talk about how the Center works with torture survivors.
"She described the work that nurses and social workers do there," Christiansen recalls. "But she never mentioned occupational therapists. To me, torture survivors are a classic example of people who need occupational therapy."
Christiansen signed on to help, working directly with survivors to help them rebuild their self-esteem, accomplish daily tasks and connect with medical, educational and employment services.
She also spent a lot of time searching for information on working with people who had experienced torture. Again, she found little mention of occupational therapy. Part of the problem, she believes, is that occupational therapy is often misunderstood. "People tend to confuse OT with physical therapy," she says.
"But our role is to help people regain the ability to do the things they want and need to do in their daily lives like dressing themselves, taking care of others, working or going to school. If people can't do those things, it's our job to go in and help them find ways to be able to do them."
Christiansen's occupational therapy background is primarily in mental health. This
helped her in her work with victims of torture, who often struggle with posttraumatic
stress disorder and cognitive impairments that diminish their memory and concentration
skills. She specifically recalls one woman who had been a professional in her country
but was having a lot of trouble working here. "She had tremendous concentration issues,"
Christiansen says. "She was trying to support her daughters, and it was just so hard."