Topic: College of Sciences and Humanities

June 21, 2007

Lucinda Woodward
A Ball State psychological science professor is heading to Africa in July to investigate new therapy treatments to help former child soldiers cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Lucinda Woodward will lead a team set to visit refugee camps in Ghana where thousands of former child soldiers from neighboring Liberia still reside a decade after a civil war in that country ended in 1996. The civil war displaced nearly a million Liberians.

According to Amnesty International, worldwide more than 500,000 children under the age of 18 have been recruited into government armed forces, paramilitary groups, civil militia and a wide variety of non-state armed factions in more than 85 countries.

"Because weapons are now very lightweight, we have found that children as young as 10 have been forced to join the fighting — particularly in Africa," Woodward said. "Today, many are totally ostracized from society because of the acts of unbelievable violence they were forced to commit, often against their own families or communities.

"They also suffered terribly from the psychological consequences of active combat," she said. "All of these factors have led many to suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome."

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents or military combat.

People with PTSD have persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal and feel emotionally numb, especially with people with whom they were once close. They may experience difficulty sleeping, feel detached or dissociated, or be easily startled, explained Woodward, who will be testing a new treatment for PTSD in which participants seek to develop the social skills necessary to return to their former communities.

"These young people have been turned out by society because of their past actions and forced into refugee camps," Woodward said. "People simply don't trust them and the lack of interaction within normal society has stunted the children's social skills.

"At the same time, these former child soldiers were themselves victims," she said. "They are unable to forgive others or, more importantly, themselves."

Joining Woodward as part of the research team is Matt Decker, who recently graduated from Ball State with a master's degree in psychological science and is now working on his doctorate at Western Michigan University.

Woodward's research project, which will last through the end of the year, is being funded by three grants, including a Cohen Peace Fellowship. She plans to document her trip with a blog that can be found on Ball State's psychological science department Web site at