Helping others move beyond trauma

Cemeteries are what made Mok Escueta realize he was onto something.

Every member of his group of trauma patients shared a similar desire to seek solitude and peace in cemeteries. This kind of unexpected commonality helped Escueta understand how important it is to bring together people grappling with similar problems and get them talking.

“It’s more powerful than I originally thought it would be,” says the PhD graduate of the Department of Educational Studies.

For his PhD research, Escueta brought together a group of trauma patients, most of whom had experienced neglect, physical or sexual abuse as children and had difficulty coping with the affects.

Having developed mental health concerns, this group of patients met Escueta once a week at the Centre for Concurrent Disorders, a community mental health clinic that is part of Vancouver Coastal Health. A trained psychotherapist, Escueta wanted to see if techniques used in popular education, a field that brings together politics and teaching, could contribute to his patients’ trauma recovery.

Popular education is a way of teaching that involves participation, dialogue, and united action. The idea is to translate learning into action. Instead of being told what issues or problems exist, group members work together to identify these problems and do something about them. Popular education often involves using the arts. As part of his project, Escueta researched the use of visual arts.

“The use of visuals is quite powerful in trauma work,” says Escueta, who had his patients draw visual representations of their emotions and experiences. In one exercise, the participants drew images that were saw-toothed with jagged lines bouncing all over the page. “For many it describes their entire lives,” he says.

Growing up in the Philippines, Escueta planned on becoming a lawyer. Instead, partially in response to the violent oppression of the Marcos regime, he became dedicated to community development work and initiating change.

Starting in university, he became part of activist organizations. At one point, he was beaten and brought to a hospital for trying to prevent the government from demolishing the neighbourhoods of poor and marginalized citizens.

“We couldn’t respond just with what we knew then,” says Escueta. “I felt there was something else I could learn that would help.”

Escueta left the Philippines and moved to San Francisco in 1999 to get a Master’s degree in social work. After graduation, he started working as a trauma psychotherapist, but five years in, Escueta felt he wanted to do more.

Escueta had always wanted to formally conduct research in the use of popular education in a trauma psychoeducation setting. At UBC, he found a program and an examining committee that valued and supported this innovative exploration.

“The program is concerned with education in various contexts, where education happens and how that affects people and communities.”

Escueta wanted to complete his PhD in four years and was able to finish earlier despite starting to work at the new BC Operational Stress Injury Clinic on campus. He’s now working full-time with veterans, RCMP, Canadian forces, members of the Reserves, and their families who are caught in cycles of trauma.

Escueta wants to stay in Vancouver—he has a loving spouse, he has a great job, he loves the city and the mountains, he hikes, he’s joined a men’s choir, he’s made some amazing friends and has fabulous local in-laws.