Professor Provides Support For Battered Homeland
May 2, 2023
SHSU Media Contact: Campbell Atkins
When a tragic disaster strikes, the world is typically apt to mobilize. Financial support and volunteers flood the impacted area in an attempt to stabilize the situation and help the population move forward. But what happens when the dust settles and the time to move forward arrives? As a vulnerable population’s basic needs evolve months, or even years, after the fact, how will humanity answer the call?
On Feb. 6, a pair of powerful earthquakes devastated southeastern Turkey and northern Syria, leaving over 50,000 dead. An even greater number were displaced in a region already rife with refugees and humanitarian crises. Countless children lost their homes and families and were forced to relocate to different cities or temporary locations such as crowded tents.
“I think it’s important to remind people that the work is not done, the work is just starting now,” said Sam Houston State University professor Sinem Akay-Sullivan, who was born and raised in Turkey. “The news changed and everyone’s attention shifted, but really, the real work starts now for any kind of natural disaster or traumatic event like this, especially in the vulnerable populations like children.”
Akay-Sullivan admitted how helpless she felt in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake as she watched her country’s plight from a television screen over six thousand miles away. While all her friends and family members fortunately made it through, the death toll continued to rise and humanitarian efforts were unable to immediately respond to certain impacted areas due to the sheer scope of the disaster.
“That really hit hard,” Akay-Sullivan said. “It is one thing to be there in Turkey and be able to go to the area and provide some support, but being so far away really hits you in a different aspect. You don’t have control over anything.”
This was especially frustrating for Akay-Sullivan due to her vast credentials and ability to manage trauma. After earning her master’s degree in clinical psychology in Turkey, she felt an urge to work primarily with kids using play therapy, a form of therapy for children in which they express their thoughts and feelings through toys. But since there was no place in Turkey to acquire any child-focused training at the time, she had to look elsewhere.
Akay-Sullivan earned a Fulbright Scholarship and was able to attend the largest play therapy institute in the world at the University of North Texas. There, she earned her second master’s degree in counseling with a specialty in play therapy before earning her doctorate in the same field. She then began working for an agency that assisted children dealing with sexual and physical abuse trauma. During this time, she became certified in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TFCBT) and then she became certified in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy, two of the most well-studied and effective trauma approaches.
“I thought that if I could not tend to those kids directly, the least I can do is train people who can do that in those areas,” Akay-Sullivan said. “Since I have a play therapy and trauma specialty background, I thought it was the perfect thing for me to do.”
Despite balancing her already hectic work life and two young children, she immediately reached out to psychologists she knew in the area, as well as organizations working with area psychologists, and expressed her desire to share her expertise with those in a position to use it. She was told that they needed to wait before implementing such a program, but an effort was made to reach out to those impacted areas and the country’s major cities to spread the word.
“I ended up saying, as a starting point, that I would provide four free hours of counseling in trauma and play therapy,” Akay-Sullivan said. “About 160 counselors, psychologists and social workers could attend the Zoom session live. They also recorded the sessions and put it on YouTube for others to access it.”
Those who attended the Zoom session live received a training certificate. In addition, since there is limited time for each session, Akay-Sullivan has committed to recording videos for the therapists’ future obstacles.
“They are now going to send me some questions as they work with these kids and I am going to create videos that everyone can access to help attend to those challenges they are experiencing. I’m hoping that anyone who needs that kind of support can access these videos.”
Akay-Sullivan says the next step in the process will be to offer more extensive training in play therapy specifically.
“You need to get extensive training to be a play therapist, but a lot of people over there don’t have the financial ability or time for that,” Akay-Sullivan said. “The idea is knowing how to respond to what children are doing symbolically in the playroom so you can process their thoughts, feelings and experiences.”
According to UNICEF, roughly 1.5 million children are impacted by this in addition to three million people who have been displaced.
“That’s a really big impact on children to not have that feeling of stability,” Akay-Sullivan said. “They watched their schools and whole buildings collapse. Some of these kids lost family members and some of them lost all their family members. When that happened, of course they were given to different relatives, who sometimes live in different cities. That’s a big change. There’s also a big grief component there, and now they are having to live in a different city with different people. That’s a lot of trauma.”
Akay-Sullivan is a licensed professional counselor-supervisor and a registered play therapist-supervisor. For more information on her career and specific work, visit her website. To support those impacted by February’s earthquakes, click here.
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