Fighting Torture: Q&A with Megan Berthold


In our Fighting Torture series, we speak with people from a number of professions who work with and support survivors of torture. What does their work mean to them and what are the biggest challenges they see in the anti-torture and rehabilitation movement?

In the latest installment, we speak with Megan Berthold, an Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut’s School of Social Work and a member of the Scientific Committee for the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims’ Scientific Symposium 2016. She speaks about the joy of seeing a torture victim receive protection as refugees (asylum in the US context), the fact that signatories of the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT) continue to torture and the need for a global approach to educating people about torture and its effects.

Q: What is your profession and where do you work?Megan Berthold

I am a social worker and since 2011, an Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut’s School of Social Work in West Hartford, CT, USA.

Q: How long have you worked in torture rehabilitation and human rights?

I first started to work with refugees in 1984 as a volunteer teacher in the Tarshi Palkhiel Tibetan Refugee Camp in Nepal. I began to work with survivors of the Cambodian genocide, and other Southeast Asian trauma survivors in 1987 during my final Masters in Social Work internship. I spent several years as a clinician and trainer in a camp for Vietnamese refugees in the Philippines and for displaced Cambodians on the Thai-Cambodian border. In 1998 I began to work as a clinician and researcher with the Program for Torture Victims in Los Angeles, California and I have been co-chairing the US National Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs’ (NCTTP) Research and Data Project since 2008.

Q: How did you end up doing this work?

I “blame” it all on my brother Tim! During my last year of college, Tim was teaching in a Tibetan refugee camp in Nepal. He sent me long fascinating letters every week detailing his experiences and encouraging me to come teach in the camp as a volunteer when I graduated. By the time I went there, Tim had moved to another part of Asia, but he had known I would find the work meaningful. I found my passion working cross-culturally with refugees who had fled persecution in their homelands.

Q: Can you give us an example of how you have seen your work make a difference?

As a long time clinician at the Program for Torture Victims in Los Angeles I had the honour of accompanying hundreds of torture survivors on their journey of healing. Obtaining asylum in the US was a big part of that process for many. I will never forget a gay man I worked with who had been tortured by soldiers in Uganda and had seen his lover murdered by a mob. It took many hours of therapy for him to feel able to tell his story of persecution in his asylum hearing. I remember the day that I was sequestered waiting to provide expert witness testimony in his asylum hearing. I heard a shriek from down the hall and I rushed out of the waiting room. My client ran to greet me. He lifted me up off the floor as he informed me that the judge had granted him asylum. “I never have to go back,” he told me. “I’m safe!”

Q: How has this work changed since you started?

We have learned a lot about the various methods of torture and the multifaceted effects on individuals, their families, their communities and society at large. I perceive that there is an increased appreciation for a holistic approach to rehabilitation, one that assesses risk and resilience, is community-based, and targets co-occurring mental and chronic physical health conditions.

In the US, clinical social workers have historically been under-represented in the work of torture treatment centres. That has begun to change as we have trained more social workers to work with this population, building on the expertise of trauma-informed social workers and augmenting their ability to provide clinical services and forensic evaluations and testimony with survivors of torture.

The concept of vicarious or secondary trauma did not exist when I started in this field. We have come a long way towards understanding the secondary effects of human rights-based work in the area of torture rehabilitation (both in terms of vicarious trauma and vicarious resilience). Our sector also better understands the role of self-care (and cultural differences related to this concept) and how vital it is for rights-based practitioners and communities to be able to engage in this work over the long-term.

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the torture rehabilitation sector?

We need more rigorous research to examine the effectiveness of treatment. We need to know more about what interventions work, for whom, under what conditions, and when. As long as systemic oppression and torture continue to be widespread, there will be more survivors of torture (along with many who lose their lives). This is unacceptable and calls for increased and concerted efforts to address the structural and systemic forces that promote the perpetration of torture and other human rights violations.

We must go beyond local or national efforts to be successful. To me, this is one of the important benefits of having an international torture rehabilitation movement and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). That’s why the IRCT Scientific Symposium in December 2016 could not come at a better time.

Efforts to secure adequate funding and policies to support rehabilitation efforts will be furthered by a strong grounding in science. I expect that among the important outcomes will be the dissemination of valuable clinical and research knowledge about effective interventions within the torture treatment field and related sectors.

In addition, best practices from around the world regarding how to promote and secure the right to rehabilitation will be shared, enhancing the possibility of furthering this right.

Q: According to various surveys, many people do not think torture is such a big problem; that it is a thing of the past; or some even think that it is necessary. What would you say to them?

From where I sit, I am painfully aware that torture is a widespread problem and not a thing of the past. Within the NCTTP, we are serving survivors of torture who fled to the US from more than 120 countries. The majority of the countries from where these survivors fled are signatories to the UNCAT and yet they continue to torture.

Torture is never necessary, is not effective, and is always a violation of human rights. It has serious consequences for individuals, their families and society. It also has serious consequences for those who perpetrate torture and for those who turn a blind eye to its practice.

In order to create a world that promotes and realises the rights of all humans, we must expose the practice of torture, condemn it, and actively work to end it in all its forms. I invite you to join me, the UNCAT, the NCTTP and the IRCT, and millions of activists and survivors worldwide in this effort.

Q: And finally, many of us do care about torture survivors and victims. How can we support the anti-torture/torture rehabilitation movement?

There are many avenues available to support the anti-torture/torture rehabilitation movement. In addition to better educating ourselves about torture and its effects, we can educate our families, neighbours and the public at large. We can work with others within our own sectors to support the movement, perhaps by joining with the USHRN or a similar network. We can be part of person-centred organised approaches against structural forces and state-led actions that contribute to the problem of torture. Finally, we can provide financial or volunteer support to a torture rehabilitation programme in our region or country.

To find out more about the IRCT Scientific Symposium and Scientific Committee, visit


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