Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been a useful tool in treating many types of mental illnesses. It is widely used to treat substance abuse and addiction, as well as eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. The technique aids many patients in recovery by helping them evaluate how their beliefs and thoughts affect how they feel. A new study by researchers from Queen’s University in Belfast provides information about the first documented effort to use group-based CBT to help child victims of sexual violence and war crimes. The therapy has been used to help victims of sexual violence in more developed countries, but it was a new technique for use in Africa. The researchers used CBT to treat children in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), located in central Africa. The surprising results show that the trauma of the children was reduced through CBT by over 50 percent. The children were all victims of war and sexual abuse. The researchers conducted the therapy through the NGO World Vision, in the Eastern Congo, also called “the rape capital of the world.” The area has the highest level of sexual violence in the world, with girls and women estimated to be 134 times more likely to be raped when compared with girls in the West. The therapy offered to the children yielded results after only a short intervention. After 15 sessions of group-based Trauma-Focused CBT, the researchers found that there were significant improvements:
- A 72 percent reduction of trauma symptoms among females who had endured rape and sexual abuse
- An 81 percent reduction in anxiety and depression
- A 72 percent reduction in conduct disorder
- A 64 percent reduction in anti-social behaviors.
The results of the study provide support for the use of this new type of CBT to enhance group-based CBT in the West. However, in countries with frequent break-outs of war, victims of rape or other sexual violence rarely receive any type of medical help or psychological treatment. The study in DRC introduced trauma psycho education, mental imagery techniques and relaxation techniques, teaching children how to change and redirect unhelpful thoughts. The girls were also invited to draw pictures of the most traumatic and serious events and were asked to talk about their experiences in individual sessions. The researchers were not at all surprised by the effects that the sexual violence had caused in the children, but were very surprised by the effectiveness of the CBT in such a short period of time. The study was conducted over a five week period during 2011. The group also treated a group of war-affected boys who were between the ages of 12 and 17. The results showed that the depression, anxiety, trauma, anti-social behavior and conduct disorder were significantly reduced among street children and child soldiers.