-by Emilia Hall-


Bolivia, as we’ve mentioned in previous posts, is a country that has a restrictive taboo surrounding the topic of mental health. And this is something that becomes more and more apparent to us when working in Project T’ikay, a project that offers psychological support to children suffering the aftermath of severe burn accidents. Pintar en Bolivia works in a centre that houses fifteen children, and offers group and individual art therapy sessions. It can be an arduous endeavour trying to convince the children to open up about things like how they are feeling, and how they struggle in day to day life with their burn scars and the memories they carry.

Our Art Therapy intern, Silvie, suffered from meningitis when she was just three years old. This left her with scars resembling burn scars on her legs and arms; Silvie came up with the notion that perhaps, if she opened up to the children, they might open up to her. Without further ado, she translated a speech she wrote about her scars into Spanish, gathered some photos, and told the children at the project she was going to tell them her story.

Throughout the presentation, the children were quiet, attentive and, above all, interested. Silvie was brave talking about her life with these scars, detailing things like the specific events of her illness, aftereffects such as having to deal with people staring, and sharing some of the things that had been said to her throughout her life (“Ah, I once burnt my finger too!”, “That’s nice you still wear shorts”).

As we could see from their reaction, seeing someone share their feelings was most unusual for the children. And this was someone that had been through, and was going through, the same things as them. Silvie was given devoted attention, as they listened carefully, asked question about the photos, and helped Silvie with her Spanish.

At the end of the speech, Silvie asked if anyone had any questions, and asked if anyone had ever had anyone say something mean about their scars – we were met with silence. The atmosphere was at first quite tense, and then some of the children admitted they were scared of talking about such sensitive information with whole room. While this is of course not always something entirely positive, it was a huge step for them to actually admit this, and it gave us an insight into how far they understand their own boundaries…then one girl, who we know to be very shy and reserved, shared how people at school often made cruel remarks about the way she looked, and made her feel self-conscious. Following this, at the end of the speech many came forward to tell Silvie that they’d like to talk with her privately sometime about the things she’d brought up in her presentation. It was heartening to see the effects of seeing someone going through a similar situation as themselves ignited gradual but significant progress.

The children displayed a huge level of empathy and kindness towards Silvie, making the presentation a touching experience. While Silvie was wrapping up, a small girl in the front row spontaneously stood up and gave her a quick hug. The atmosphere, in the end, was warm and positive. Although parts may have been strong for the children – especially when prompting them to think about who they are – it allowed Silvie to show them a story they could not only relate to, but look up to – someone going through what they had been through, who had made peace with her past illness and the scars they carry. Little by little, we hope the children at Project T’ikay begin to understand the importance of sharing their thoughts and feelings with each other. As Silvie pointed out, they are all going through a similar situation…and it’s far better to go through things together than alone.

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