Cognitive processing therapy for rape survivors in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Setting a new standard for post-conflict psychosocial care

Last week saw the publication of an important randomized control trial of cognitive processing therapy (CPT) for Congolese survivors of sexual assault in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM — and thanks, NEJM, for making the article available in full online). The fruit of intensive work by Judy Bass of Johns Hopkins, Jeannie Annan of the International Rescue Committee, Debra Kaysen of the University of Washington, and a host of others, this publication sets a new standard in the field of post-conflict mental health research and is welcome news for those affected by rape and other forms of sexual assault in low and middle-income (or, “LMIC”) war-affected settings.

The study involved almost 500 female survivors of rape in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), an area of the world infamous for the absence of state control and an ongoing epidemic of sexual violence. Half were randomly assigned to a group-based version of CPT led by trained local counselors, half to generalized, patient-directed individual support and case management. Those attending CPT improved far more than those in the control group (although the latter also improved somewhat).

CPT has been shown to be effective for sexual assault survivors in several Northern, high-income countries, so that it was effective in the DRC may seem unsurprising. However, debates have raged in the past decade or so about the efficacy and effectiveness of doing psychotherapy in post-conflict settings that are not technically “post”-conflict and in populations with low-levels of education.

Prior research has suggested that short-term therapies may not be effective for populations exposed to ongoing trauma or multiple severe traumas. In our study, all villages reported at least one major security incident during the trial, including attacks, displacement due to fighting, and robbery by armed groups. In addition, there was concern that providing therapy to illiterate persons would be challenging. Our findings suggest that despite illiteracy and ongoing conflict, this evidence-based treatment can be appropriately implemented and effective.

This study shows that, with sufficient technical support, psychotherapy targeting trauma-related emotional problems can be delivered effectively in violence-affected LMICs as part of comprehensive psychosocial programs.

For a brief summary of the study and some commentary, see the related New York Times article from last Wednesday.

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