Transforming Trauma Episode115: Culturally Competent Trauma Care in High Conflict Areas With Michael Niconchuk
A podcast brought to you by the NARM® Training Institute
On this episode of Transforming Trauma, NARM Senior Trainer Brad Kammer welcomes Michael Niconchuk, a neuroscience researcher, practitioner, and author working at the intersection of forced migration, trauma recovery, and peacebuilding. The pair discuss the critical shortage of culturally competent mental health care in conflict areas, using laypeople to close that gap, and addressing power dynamics in the client-caregiver relationship. They also explore tensions between the gatekeeping of trauma-informed language by professionals and its overuse by social media influencers and underskilled providers.
Michael and Brad reflect on and discuss their experiences working in humanitarian efforts around the world. “I've been slapped in the face with the cold hand of humility quite a few times,” admits Michael, describing the challenges he’s faced while advocating for increased accessibility to culturally aware trauma-focused care for persons affected by violent conflicts in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Balkans. “The depth of difference between how a young Muslim refugee understands the self, the soul, the heart, and suffering compared to the average secular American therapist,” he says, “is really significant.”
Michael and Brad challenge the Western and American-centric perspectives that often permeate international aid, and how in their work they both focused on human to human relationships, as opposed to imposing principles and methods that may not be aligned with the local people they are in relationship with. Michael expresses dissatisfaction over the reluctance of aid groups to utilize local laypeople in some circumstances as a way to alleviate the provider shortage. “I understand the deep ethical obligation of rigorous training, but even the WHO is moving towards adequate training of lay providers to provide certain subclinical interventions in environments where there's a scarcity of professionals,” he says––a sentiment that closely mirrors NARM’s commitment to expanding trauma-informed training access.
After spending years on the frontline, Michael is transitioning to a more strategic role, shaping global trauma care policy on a larger scale. “I'm deeply committed to how we understand what healing means,” he says, noting that the generational effects of conflict are significant and must be identified and addressed. Members of his family suffered under guerrilla intimidation during the Guatemalan Civil War. Years later, Michael worked with folks who identified as combatants in that conflict, activating familial triggers while galvanizing his professional focus. “That experience confirmed that I wanted to work on the long-term political, social, and personal implications of conflict-related trauma.”
Transforming Trauma is inspired by Michael’s dedication to providing effective trauma-informed support to those affected by violent conflict, extremism, and displacement. We thank him for chronicling the challenges of treating complex trauma within conflict zones and championing the training of culturally aware lay persons.
Michael Niconchuk is a researcher and practitioner at the intersection of psychological trauma recovery, migration, and violence prevention. Trained in security studies, international relations, and social cognition, Michael has worked for more than a decade in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Balkans to support local capacities to offer evidence-based care for persons affected by violent conflict, extremism, and displacement. This includes extensive work on innovative community programs and policy to support the healing and wholeness of folks affected by the Syrian conflict as well as the return and rehabilitation of the families of foreign terrorist fighters in the Middle East. He is the author of The Field Guide for Barefoot Psychology and numerous publications on mental health, identity-based violence, and migration.