Therapy for former child soldiers in Uganda

Publication of a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association

Child soldiers in Uganda have gone through terrible experiences through being kidnapped and forced to fight and kill other people. As a result, many of them are suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD): they are continuously living through situations in their minds without being able to process them. They cannot access the information that an event is long past and no longer a threat to them. After being freed, some of these former child soldiers took part in a therapy study run by Bielefeld University’s Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy Department. This study is being published on Wednesday 3 August in one of the leading medical journals, the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Together with colleagues at the University of Konstanz, the first author of the study, the Bielefeld psychologist Dr. Verena Ertl, has succeeded in showing that severely traumatized former child soldiers in northern Uganda can be treated successfully with psychotherapy. They took 85 traumatized former child soldiers and randomly assigned them to three groups: one was treated according to the principle of narrative exposure therapy; a second received an academic catch-up programme supportive psychological counselling; and a third served as a control group while waiting for therapy. The scientists measured the severity of PTSD before the therapy and 3, 6, and 12 months after the therapy. The group receiving narrative exposure therapy showed a particularly marked decline in symptoms.

In narrative exposure therapy, therapists help clients to work on the negative and positive events in their lives repeatedly and in chronological order. As time goes by, they learn to locate their experiences within their autobiography and to recognize that they are over and no longer threatening. This type of therapy, developed by, among others, the Bielefeld psychologist Professor Dr. Frank Neuner, is very suitable for use in conflict regions: improvements can already be seen after only a few therapy sessions. Because there are often no or only a few psychologists and psychiatrists in these regions, it can also be carried out by lay therapists. The German scientists trained local lay therapists for the study in Uganda who helped the former child soldiers in up to eight double sessions. The research team also informed many Ugandan teachers about posttraumatic disorders, explaining the symptoms to them so that they can recognize victims more easily and handle them accordingly. In addition, the team has already given trauma therapy training to members of several non-governmental organizations.

Ertl, V., Pfeiffer, A., Schauer, E., Elbert, T., & Neuner, F. (2011). Community-implemented trauma therapy for former child soldiers in northern Uganda: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Medical Association, 206(5), 503–512.

For further information in the Internet, go to:

Dr. Verena Ertl, Bielefeld University
Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy
Telephone: +49 521 106-4490

Professor Dr. Frank Neuner
Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy
Telephone: +49 521 106-4493, -6871 (secretary)

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