Trauma and grief are deeply ingrained in the Somali experience. After more than 30 years of war and disaster, we are all connected by pain and tragedy. No matter where we live, every Somali family has stories of loss, and an enduring worry for the loved ones that remain.
As I write, old memories return and I feel a familiar tightening in my chest. I am back in the 1990s, a devastating period in Somali history when civil war ravaged the capital, Mogadishu. I lost my father and sister in the early days of the fighting, and that pain still lives with me.
As a child refugee, struggling to adjust to a new life, I was overwhelmed with grief and didn't know how to cope. I became withdrawn, retreated into my own world, and was unable to speak for months. This period is etched into the deepest parts of my psyche.
Only now, in my 40s, am I able to put the pieces together.
I am far from alone in this struggle. A preliminary study by the UN, the health ministry, and the national university has found that 76% of Somalis have experienced psychological disorders. The figure is more than double an earlier (and already alarming) estimate by the World Health Organization that one third of Somalis suffer from some kind of mental distress.
But we have all been impacted by extreme events for decades – from war, famine, mass displacement, and inter-communal violence to inequity, indignity, and poverty.
A news report last month, based on the new research, led to shock and scepticism among many Somalis on social media – myself included. There were concerns over the sample size, and the study’s focus on predominantly displaced populations, which we can assume have a higher prevalence of trauma.
Collective and intergenerational pain
But we have all been impacted by extreme events for decades – from war, famine, mass displacement, and inter-communal violence to inequity, indignity, and poverty. Should there be any surprise that trauma levels could potentially be so high?
Collective and intergenerational pain is present at all levels of Somali society – and even manifests in Somali communities abroad. It can be seen in the incarceration rates of Somali youth in Canada and the death by suicide of young Somali men across Europe.
Despite the impact on citizens, families, and society, little to no attention is paid to the long-term impact of trauma on the individual and collective psyche.
“Invisible wounds” keep people from engaging in recovery, reconciliation, and civic engagement initiatives.
In Somalia, the raw data is hard to come by. But recent research by the Green String Network and partners using the Harvard Trauma Questionnaire also found extremely high levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) in southern Somalia – a region that has experienced long-running conflict.
Rates of 36%-52% were found in some communities, particularly in areas that had recently been under the control of the jihadist group al-Shabab. These are PTSS levels more commonly associated with the security forces, and far higher than neighbouring Kenya, where documented rates are 11%-19%.
According to Angi Yoder-Maina, executive director of the Green String Network and a practitioner of “healing-centred peacebuilding”, this has implications for a post-conflict Somalia.
“Invisible wounds” keep people from engaging in recovery, reconciliation, and civic engagement initiatives. They may express feelings of exhaustion and frustration – viewing such activities as “useless”. This not only impacts their long-term resilience, but also their ability to transition from a state of violence to sustainable peace.
“It is crucial to acknowledge that without addressing the need for social healing, it will be impossible to achieve long-term recovery, stability, and security in the region,” notes Yoder-Maina.
Where do we go from here?
Today, we need a new narrative of shared distress: one based on a community-wide trauma-aware lens that replaces the traditional failed approach of over-medicalising individual disorders, pathologising our feelings and emotions.
A new chapter in Somali history is on the horizon. The government’s ongoing military campaign against al-Shabab has resulted in a string of successes in central and southern Somalia, and instilled an almost-forgotten sense of hope for the future.
To complement nation-building efforts in Somalia, we need a holistic approach that supports collective trauma healing and emotional well-being.
However, history has also taught us that relying solely on military force will not bring about lasting peace and stability. We need to incorporate social and collective healing as part of a long-term recovery plan.
To complement nation-building efforts in Somalia, we need a holistic approach that supports collective trauma healing and emotional well-being, helping to empower Somali communities to build long-term peace and security.
We can build on our cultural values, spirituality, and traditions of civic engagement to create a new, healthier society.
President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud acknowledges a different approach is needed to tackle emotional and psychological trauma. In recent months, he has emphasised the establishment of “healing spaces” – community-based facilities to address these wounds.
It’s the first time a Somali head of state has recognised the importance of psychosocial well-being.
We can do more. A comprehensive national policy centring mental health would require multiple interventions, spanning prevention, early intervention, and resilience promotion.
A new policy framework
Some key planks of such a policy would include:
- Requiring all government programmes to centre trauma as a core theme
- Ensuring the school curriculum addresses the psychosocial well-being of pupils
- Developing trauma-sensitive training curricula for educators and healthcare providers
- Funding support for research trauma-informed care for trauma survivors
- Integrating trauma-informed initiatives into humanitarian and development programmes
- Enhancing collaboration between government agencies, NGOs, and community organisations to support individuals and communities in healing and recovery at the grassroots level
- Prioritising marginalised communities who are disproportionately affected by psychological trauma
Direct and structural violence in Somalia results in individual and collective trauma – which has an impact on future security.
Addressing emotional and psychological needs is therefore a crucial aspect of any stabilisation, peacebuilding, development, and governance programme.
A generation of Somalis has known nothing but pain and despair, and another generation is now on the same path. We must pause and ask a fundamental question: how long can we be in this revolving distress before we embark on the healing that we – both individually and collectively – so desperately need.
With contributions from Angi Yoder-Maina, executive director of Green String Network. Edited by Obi Anyadike.