Psychologist Gaithri Fernando, PhD, was taking a break from her research in Sri Lanka, preparing to travel the 15 miles to the country's southwestern shores with her 9-year-old son, when the tsunami hit Dec. 26. Fernando--an assistant professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles--was still far enough away to be unharmed, but she wanted to help those who'd been less fortunate.
So on Jan. 1, she went to the nearby fishing community of Moratuwa to speak with adults and children who had been affected by the tsunami.
She was struck by the silence. "People affected were frozen," she says.
Fernando, a native of Sri Lanka, moved to the United States when she was 21 but returned for a year in 2001 as a Senior Fulbright Fellow to conduct research and clinical work with survivors of war. Since the 1980s, Sri Lanka has been plagued with civil war between the Sri Lankan army and the northern Tamil Tigers, who seek a separate state.
Fernando's research indicates many war survivors are resilient or resistant to the trauma they experienced. In fact, she's found that within two to three years, most of the Sri Lankans surveyed bounced back by integrating that trauma into the formation of their new identities.
"Many Sri Lankans don't need much to get back on their feet," says Fernando, whose research centers on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in war and extreme traumas such as torture, bomb blasts and assassination attempts.
However, Fernando is unsure whether that same resilience will apply among tsunami survivors, in which many people's roles as mother, father, daughter and son were affected.
"This question of role loss might be as intense and traumatic as human-on-human violence," such as war, she posits. "Who are they going to be mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers to? And if one child survived and others didn't, will parents become overly protective of that child? All these questions are important to investigate."
Fernando also expects cultural and religious differences to surface in how people cope. Sri Lanka's dominant religion is Buddhism, followed by Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. She says Hindus and Buddhists have spiritual beliefs that may help--or hinder--their recovery. For example, mothers or fathers may believe a spirit of their deceased child is haunting them--something Sri Lankan psychologists will need to anticipate. She also expects fear of further waves may keep some people from returning to their homes or communities.
Just days before the deadly waves struck, Fernando was in the Indian Province of Gujarat making plans to study trauma among survivors of a natural disaster there--specifically, a 2001 earthquake that led to 20,000 deaths. She seeks to compare their trauma and coping with that of survivors of human-wrought disasters, such as the ethnic conflict between Hindus and Muslims that resulted in murders in the same area of Gujarat. In the future, she may expand her studies on nature-caused versus human-caused trauma to include Sri Lanka's civil war and the tsunami.
Regardless, Fernando plans to return to Sri Lanka this summer to work with relief organizations and mental health counselors to conduct workshops on trauma and grief.
"We can't turn our attention away from those in desperate need," she says. "This will require a long-term commitment."