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Home > Public Resources > Trauma Blog > 2020 - April > ISTSS 2019: Reflections from A Global Travel Award Recipient Psychology and Boston: Sparking a New F

ISTSS 2019: Reflections from A Global Travel Award Recipient Psychology and Boston: Sparking a New Flame

Felicien Izaturwanaho

April 21, 2020

This past November, I had a unique opportunity of presenting my abstract at the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) 35th Annual Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts in the United States. The conference theme was “Trauma, Recovery, and Resilience: Charting a Course Forward.” My abstract was titled “Validation of the Screen for Children Anxiety and Related Emotional Disorders-Revised Version (SCARED-R) for Use in Rwanda.” It was really inspiring to be on a panel with my professor, Eugene Rutembesa, PhD; my mentor, Mary Fabri, PsyD; and Sarah Jensen, PhD, for the first time. Our symposium in this conference was titled “Identifying Mental Health Determinants in Rwandan Youth 25 Years Post-Genocide.” This symposium was chaired by Mary Fabri. I co-authored this abstract with Emmanuel Habumugisha, MSc; Cindi Cassady, PhD; Mary Fabri; and Jean Mutabaruka, PhD.

Presenting this abstract was a matter of realizing a long-held dream from when I joined high school in 2008. In my years at school, I used to talk to my classmates about pursuing a career in general medicine or civil engineering. These disciplines required you to have at least 64 out of 73 grades in the final secondary school examinations. I fell sick during the examination period, an illness I thought was anxiety about the final high school examinations or stress due to high academic demands. I went to the hospital and a nurse there took care of me. Unfortunately, she didn’t think of anxiety- or stress-related illnesses and didn’t administer me any anxiety- or stress-related test. When I received the results of my exams, it turned out that I would not be able to join either medicine or engineering as my grades were not high enough for those degrees. But I had also become curious about understanding what anxiety- or stress-related problems can do to influence the performance of a human being. And so, clinical psychology became my first choice. I wanted to understand what happened to me during the exams. I was curious to find out if there would be other, better ways in which the medical system could perhaps help youngsters with similar challenges. Once I had started my degree in clinical psychology, I realized I was curious why the nurse hadn’t administered me any anxiety- or stress-related test.

During my studies at the university, I realized that there were no self-built or validated psychometric tools to measure anxiety and related emotional disorders in children and adolescents in Rwanda. That is when I said to my heart that I wanted to validate a psychometric tool for psycho-diagnosis in hospitals, clinical settings and research. I felt this could contribute to a stronger mental health system in post-genocide Rwanda. I researched anxiety psychometric measures and consulted mental health experts in Rwanda and realized that building my own psychometric tool was not going to be feasible given the time available during my degree as well as my limited capabilities as a psychologist at that moment. This is when I came across SCARED-R, a tool that was developed relatively recently to measure DSM-IV defined anxiety disorder symptoms (Birmaher, et al, 1997).

I was able to validate SCARED-R to a Rwandan sample with the help of the students of the Ecole Secondaire de Kirambo who volunteered in the research. This helped me to answer my questions. Then a third question came to me: “Could I perhaps publish the research findings in a scientific journal so that members of psychological trauma community in Rwanda can utilize it?” Initially, I submitted my abstract to the 2019 International Conference on Mental Health and Human Resilience in Barcelona, Spain. It was accepted. However, I hadn’t any financial support to assist with the costs of travelling to the conference. In early 2019, I had met Mary Fabri in Kigali. We had been in touch since 2017. She mentored my work and was instrumental in sponsoring my membership of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. We also spoke about how we may perhaps make a presentation at the 35th ISTSS Annual Meeting—A first step towards presenting in Boston!

We submitted the abstract to the ISTSS Abstracts Reviewing Committee and were very pleased that they were accepted for oral presentation at the conference. I felt very privileged to be one of the ISTSS 2019 travel award recipients—my heartfelt thanks goes out to the ISTSS Travel Awards Committee. This is where my fantastic November 2019 started. I travelled to Nairobi, Kenya in early November to assist in the delivery of a mental health in aviation course as well as to attend the crew resource management course. I also used my time in Nairobi to prepare my ISTSS presentation and did a couple of practice sessions of my presentation. From there, I travelled to Boston and presented at the ISTSS.

On Friday afternoon, in a grey suit, a white shirt, a red tie and black shoes in the extremely cold weather of Boston, I felt well prepared for my presentation. I felt it was well received by the ISTSS participants. To be fair, that moment belongs more to my parents more than me. They have sacrificed so much so I can live out my dreams and meet some of the world’s most renowned members of psychological trauma community. A moment I will treasure forever. I also attended an inspiring student luncheon and sessions that were addressing trans-generational trauma—the hanging psychological problem my generation is manifesting in my country.

On the way back from Boston to Rwanda, I made a stopover in Amsterdam at the invitation of the AviAssist Foundation, the organization with which I have been holding the position of a trainee since February 2019. I was in The Netherlands for a few days where I attended the AviAssist Foundation’s board meeting and participated in the Friends of AviAssist Symposium. I also had the chance to meet up with the VALK institute of Leiden University where they treat people with anxiety disorders, including fear of flying. This stopover in the Netherlands also meant I was able to receive some support from the AviAssist Foundation towards the costs of my trip. Many thanks to the AviAssist Foundation for helping to realize the trip and to Mr. Tom Kok, Mr. Jan Smeitink and Prof. Dr. Vincent Sezibera for their professional guidance.

The ISTSS 35th Annual Conference was the most informative and groundbreaking conference I have ever attended. I strongly believe that the knowledge I gained from the conference will contribute to my becoming a responsible and efficient researcher who utilizes world-class methodologies.

Sometimes, I find it hard to believe that a child from a humble background from the Burera district in northern Rwanda could present at such an esteemed international conference. However, I DID IT. After presenting at the ISTSS Annual Meeting, I look forward to publishing the article in the Journal of Traumatic Stress (JTS) and disseminating the validated SCARED-R to members of trauma psychology community in Rwanda.