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When I began my doctorate, I had certain expectations about how the training would look. I saw myself studying advanced and complicated theories from heavy and imposing leather-bound books. I imagined myself practicing therapy under the supervision of a seasoned and intimidating doctor behind a one-way mirror. I pictured what it would be like as the stereotypical doctoral student who complains to everyone about the dissertation-induced dystopia he exists in as he shuffles around campus with a briefcase full of important looking papers. What I did not anticipate was the extent to which travel abroad courses geared toward the study of trauma would profoundly impact my views of the world, the future, and even myself.

During my undergraduate work, I never traveled abroad. When I applied to graduate school, I made a deal to myself that, if I were to embark on this five-year life-encompassing adventure, I would somehow incorporate traveling abroad into my studies. Lucky for me, my school offers a variety of study abroad courses. I heard about a trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland with a focus on suicide prevention and intergenerational trauma. Given my interest in trauma, along with the fact that the Northern Irish and I share a common language, this seemed like a natural choice. At the end of my first year in my program, I traveled to Northern Ireland expecting to take a few workshops, hear some lectures, and eat a variety of differently cooked potatoes. While all of these things happened, the most impactful aspect was not the information learned or the calories consumed; it was the people.

Belfast suffers from an insidious and steadily growing suicide epidemic, undoubtedly resulting from hundreds of years of cultural conflict with the British that resulted in a shattered international identity that resonated through the generations. Too many young Northern Irish men and women feel a sense of hopelessness and meaninglessness in their lives that leads them to believe that the only relief is to complete suicide. It is not an exaggeration to say that everyone in Belfast has been affected by suicide. Whether it is the waiter bringing you your meal, the cab driver taking you back to your hotel, or the people walking down the street who subtly shift their heads to avoid eye contact with you, everyone in Belfast is touched by suicide. The emerald green hills and the striking blue Northern Irish skies are no match for the heavy sadness that hangs in the air as everyone tries to cope with a world in which you can never guess who around you will take their life next.

Despite the deep seated distress, the Northern Irish put a smile on their faces and continue to exist in my memory as one of the most kind and compassionate groups of people that I ever encountered. The people at The PIPS Charity who we worked with demonstrated the ability to transmute their pain and loss into a powerful force for good through the counseling and resources they provide to those struggling with suicidal ideation. They were willing to open themselves up to us, share their stories, and sit with their pain and vulnerability for our benefit. They did this because they wanted us to see it. They want the world to know the pain their country is in. What made these interactions so powerful for me was the fact that it was not a therapist/client relationship complete with power and knowledge differentials: They were peers. They were just like me. They feel pain, and joy, and desperation, just like me. I could not help but begin to realize how important trauma work is after connecting with them: They made it real for me.

I learned a lot from my time in Northern Ireland. I learned that there is excruciating sadness in this world. I also learned that, in the face of that seemingly overwhelming pain, people can endure. There is an empowerment that comes along with the experience of sitting with someone and simply existing with them in their pain – not as a therapist, but as a human. It is difficult if not impossible to put into words, which is exactly why it is so valuable to experience. You cannot learn this from one of the big leather-bound books on theory, from any peer-reviewed article, or from a professor of any experience level. To get this experience, you have to see the trauma, the hopelessness, the utter pain and confusion, and stare it in the face. You have to realize that this pain is as much a source of strength as it is damage. You have to realize that it is sometimes our ability to be broken and to put ourselves and each other back together again that allows us to be truly human and to appreciate every breath we are fortunate enough to take. My hands cannot help but shake and my chest feel on fire as I sit at my desk writing this, trying to articulate a lived experience where I witnessed hopelessness turn into hope, and pain turn into meaning. I highly recommend that every graduate student in the mental health field seek out an opportunity like this: to go out into the world and connect with both the pain and the sheer strength that human beings possess.  

About the Author

Nickolas Armstrong is a third year student in the clinical PsyD program at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. His clinical interests include neuropsychology, trauma, suicide prevention, and health psychology. After graduation, he intends to pursue board certification in neuropsychology, and plans to incorporate holistic approaches in his assessment and treatment of neurological disorders and trauma.