Although such field of therapy and psychology seem quite important and necessary, there are not many professionals focusing on this field. Ewha Womans University, however, studies trauma psychology, and it is the only university in Korea that has a trauma laboratory. Behind Ewha’s trauma lab is professor Ahn Hyunnie (Psychology), an expert in trauma psychology who has been studying it for over a decade.
Ever since she was in elementary school, professor Ahn had an underlying knack for psychology - she was good at listening to her friends’ problems and was always sympathetic toward others. Upon facing the moment of choosing a major for university, professor Ahn’s father, a professor of educational psychology, recommended psychology.
“I had originally thought about going into social welfare study, but my father suggested a more scientific approach of psychology,” professor Ahn said. “When I entered university and studied psychology, it was so interesting and fun.”
After graduating from university, professor Ahn decided to go to the United States to study abroad and selected the field of counseling psychology as her specific major. Her studies were not initially focused on trauma psychology, but on therapeutic factor. Her thesis for the doctorate was about finding a common therapeutic factor among various psychological therapies, for which she even received an award for excellent thesis.
However, when professor Ahn came back to Korea, she faced a rather serious problem. As Korea was not well aware of therapy and did not conduct much counseling, extracting common therapeutic factors was of no use. Then, in 2003, after about two years since professor Ahn’s return to Korea, the Daegu subway tragedy occurred, where a terrible fire killed and injured hundreds.
“While watching the news, I became concerned as a psychologist about who would care for the traumatized people from the incident,” professor Ahn said. “I was so worried because so many people were mentally scarred but there were so few therapists available. I hurriedly prepared related research matters and headed straight to Daegu. This became my first tie with trauma psychology.”
Trauma psychology is not widely pursued among psychologists as it is considered to be a 3D (Difficult, Dirty, Dangerous) field. For one, as traumatic experiences can happen to anyone, the range of subjects varies from children to senior citizens. In addition, listening to the painful stories of clients can be emotionally overwhelming, triggering the burn-out of psychologists much faster. Professor Ahn has experienced her share of emotional difficulty as well, but she was able to overcome such moments with the support and affection of her disciples.
“The most powerful therapeutic factor for humans is human relationships,” professor Ahn said. “My students from the lab always tell me that they will be my self-care system, and their support is of immense help.”
Apart from the warm comradeship from her students, professor Ahn also feels worthwhile about her work when she provides actual help and advice to others.
“Various accidents happen all the time and people come looking for us for help when such situations occur,” professor Ahn said. “I think that it is fortunate that at least I am doing something what others are not, and I feel proud when my studies can be of actual use.”
Still, professor Ahn wishes that other scholars would join her in this field of work because sometimes there is not enough energy for Ewha trauma laboratory to solely cover all the incidents.
With the onset of the Sewol ferry incident, though, the necessity and usefulness of trauma psychology has been magnified, showing promising signals regarding professor Ahn’s wish. Not only the general public, but also the expert psychologists are recognizing the need and importance of trauma psychology. Korean Psychological Association (KPA), for instance, decided to fixate the committee for mass trauma as a permanent system instead of a temporary organization.
Professor Ahn serves as a chairperson of KPA’s committee for mass trauma and has been playing her part well at this time of national uproar. Professor Ahn’s role as a chairperson is to contact all qualified members of KPA and provide them with first-aid training education concerning traumas and grief counseling. Professor Ahn also has to ponder about how to work together with people from other careers such as psychiatrists and government officials. She has to deal with the press and discuss the role of psychologists as well.
According to professor Ahn, the Sewol tragedy caused one of the worst traumas in Korea’s history.
“The psychological gravity of the accident is not due to the large number of deaths,” professor Ahn said. “People tend to be more psychologically affected when the victims are vulnerable members of society such as children, teenagers or the disabled. Moreover, the citizens all had to observe the process of the ship sinking gradually. So this accident contains different shades of meaning in various aspects.”
Thus, the psychological effects and aftereffects of the accident are worrisome. Not only the directly related people, but also completely unrelated citizens are occasionally suffering from trauma or depression.
“The most important thing for such suffering people is self-care,” professor Ahn advised. “People should confirm their close relationships with others near them. Also, even if they don’t feel like it, they should try to go outside and make small interactions. People near them should also reach out to them actively and encourage going out. Furthermore, in this situation, it is not a good idea to watch too much media.”
Another problematic aspect of mass trauma is the problem of dealing with grief and loss. How to recover from grief would be the most crucial therapeutic factor in such circumstances.
“In grief counseling, the counselors try to bring out positive memories from the patient in order to prevent the flow of negative thoughts,” professor Ahn said.
Professor Ahn stresses the importance of forming networks and working together, especially at such a moment of national hardship. However, regarding the Sewol incident, communication and formation of networks have been difficult. Particular groups of people have been shutting out psychologists from helping out with the aftermath of the tragic event.
“People working in other fields, especially doctors, try to have exclusive rule over the situation and make important decisions dogmatically,” professor Ahn commented. “It is deeply upsetting not to be able to visit the site and help directly due to the others’ gate-keeping. The attitude of insisting that they do everything on their own is frustrating and difficult. It is a little disappointing as psychologists are also experts who can give helpful opinions concerning the situation.”
The silver lining of the situation is that statistically 60 to 90 percent of traumatized patients eventually recovers in due time, even without counseling sessions. In addition, the tightly-closed gate has been slightly opened, and expert therapists are giving counseling in 53 elementary schools and middle schools in Ansan, the hometown of the high school student victims of the accident.
After the Sewol incident blows over, professor Ahn hopes to return her focus on researching, her original role as a professor and researcher.
“My role is not a therapist, but a researcher,” professor Ahn said. “Previously, I had felt that as a researcher, it was wise of me to focus on my research instead of attempting to go out to the counseling field. Through research, I could talk in a scientific manner about what words to use on the field. So I want to go back to researching scientifically about what types of therapy are effective.”
Professor Ahn advises Ewha students to be more alert and critical.
“I am a little worried that students would not think deeply about what should be done after seeing social issues in the news,” professor Ahn said. “Trauma and disasters can happen to anyone, so students should always see such matters sympathetically. They should also view the broadcasts of the press in a critical manner as intellectuals. Also, always keep self-care in mind as it is a difficult time for all of us.”