Graduate Student Research Reflection: Mary Bunn

The Pozen Family Center for Human Rights supports doctoral student research that makes a significant contribution to the study and field of human rights. The grants may be used during a fifteen month period and awardees are asked to submit a report or reflection upon completion. 

By: Mary Bunn, School of Social Service Administration
2015 Pozen Research Grant for PhD Students Awardee


Sitting in a beautiful fourteenth century villa in Italy on the first day of lectures, Richard Mollica asks us to consider the simple question, “What heals?” Along with 60 colleagues from around the world, I had travelled to Italy for two weeks of intensive study with some of the leading scholars in trauma rehabilitation as part of the Harvard Global Mental Health, Trauma and Recovery Certificate Program. The focus of the course was closely aligned to my own area of clinical practice and research with survivors of conflict, torture and human rights violations who are living in exile, refugee camps and post-conflict settings. Mollica’s pithy question resonated deeply and echoed the very inquiry I was pursuing in my own doctoral studies.

After thirteen years of clinical practice with survivors of torture and political violence and frustrated with the limitations in the literature and the direction of research, I made a decision to return to graduate school to pursue a doctoral degree in social work. Torture is a pressing and pervasive human rights problem and the consequences to individuals, families and communities are multi-faceted and complex. And yet, the current research on mental health interventions reveals a prevailing trend towards a predominant and narrow focus on psychiatric symptoms addressed with brief, manualized interventions. Returning to school, I was interested in deepening my understanding of torture, human rights and clinical research methodologies with particular attention to “rehabilitation” modalities that included a broader focus on restoring relationships, social bonds and community connections.

With generous support from the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights, I spent my second year of studies participating in the Harvard Program and conducting field work in Rwanda. Both activities worked in tandem with each other. The Harvard program was an opportunity for more formal learning with leading exerts in the field. While the work in Rwanda was more applied and offered an opportunity to examine the particular complexities of response and resilience post-genocide.

My work in Rwanda focused on exploring how an integrated rehabilitation program for survivors of the genocide who were living with HIV was using yoga to further goals of personal and collective healing. Though yoga may seem like a curious focus for a trauma and torture rehabilitation scholar, research increasingly highlights the role of movement and yoga-based interventions for trauma. While I had experienced the benefits of yoga first hand, I was interested to see if these would translate, so to speak, especially in the context of substantial poverty, social inequality and historical trauma.

In Kigali, I spent several weeks talking with teachers and teacher trainers. As a result of their yoga practice, participants’ described improvements in sleep, appetite and self-confidence. Many pointed out that it helped them adhere to HIV medication, improved their general sense of health and wellbeing and regain a sense of hope. The more I observed the program, however, the more it seemed that these impressive benefits resulted from a combination of factors.

Many of the participants had been meeting for regular practice for several years and had developed close bonds and friendships as a result. Several of the participants were going on to learn how to teach yoga which offered a vital path to economic improvement. The project director also told me that the program introduced a concept of leisure time and self-care that had been completely new to the participants. On one particular morning, I was able to grasp the confluence of all of these factors coming together. The program was hosting a teacher trainer session in a garden next to the main program building. It was a beautiful space situated on a hillside of Kigali. The trainees were traversing the green yard, practicing the movements, laughing easily at missteps and also congratulating each other for moments of physical accomplishment. The moment was deeply moving. It conjured the work of a number of politically minded, relationally oriented trauma clinicians who describe survival from severe violence as an act of resistance in and of itself.

My year of funding from the Pozen Family Human Rights Center brought many tangible benefits. The work in Rwanda resulted in a published book chapter that is part of the anthology, Yoga, The Body and Embodied Social Change (Rowman and Littlefield). I co-developed a course on healing and reconciliation in Rwanda and offered it during the 2016 spring quarter. Along with a number of senior torture rehabilitation clinician-researchers, we have developed a virtual peer consultation group for support and collaboration with programs operating in security-compromised settings. This project grew as a result of the relationships developed in the Harvard course. But perhaps most importantly, I think back to that afternoon of training in Kigali. It crystalized some of the central ingredients of this question, “What heals?” It underscored the importance of a long-term commitment to individuals and groups, the centrality of relationships and fostering of community all of which function as powerful antidotes to the effects of systematic violence. These experiences have inspired my work and become deeply integrated into my scholarship including plans for my dissertation study which will explore social bonds among Syrian survivors of torture. Studies such as these can enhance the field by enlarging the discussion of effective interventions in the global arena to include attention to the vital role of social connection in healing and rehabilitation.