Thinking Globally: What Can Rwanda Teach Us About Mitigating the Trauma of Gun Violence? It‘s Complicated

Assignment: Compare the major source of collective trauma in Rwanda, the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsis, with that in the United States, the 2001 terrorist attacks and ongoing gun violence and mass shootings.

Investigators: Kyra Vercande, D.O.’23, and Rwandan student Jean Pierre Nsengimana took on this topic as a virtual internship offered by DMU’s Department of Global Health; the Global Engagement Institute, which provides education programs in Africa and Asia for international students and professionals; and mHub, which opened Rwanda’s first private mental health clinic in 2020 and offers mental health and well-being programs.

Background: During the 100-day genocide in Rwanda, an estimated 600,000-plus members of the Tutsi minority ethnic group, as well as some moderate Hutu and Twa, were killed by armed Hutu militias. The East African nation was entirely in ruins afterward. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates gun violence kills one person every 11 minutes. The U.S. accounts for 73% of all mass shootings in developed countries.

Takeaways: As a small country, Rwanda — which covers an area about the size of Maryland — can implement strategies more readily nationwide than can a country as big as the U.S. Because practically all Rwandans, including top government leaders, were directly affected by the genocide, most people understood the need to move together toward recovery.

“In the U.S., it can be pretty easy to be on the West Coast, hear about a mass shooting on the East Coast and separate yourself from it,” Vercande says. “Rwanda had a much greater feeling of and need for unity.”

Now in a psychiatry residency at Hennepin/Regions in Minneapolis, her top choice, Vercande gained grim yet practical insights from the internship.

“As future health care professionals and citizens, we have to shift how we cope with these events if we know they’re going to keep happening,” she says. “That involves continuing to do as much research as we can on mitigating their impact and coming together as communities as much as we can. We also need to do what we can to help prevent them. As physicians, we have a unique role, being seen as experts on the health impact of these events. We need to advocate for change as much as we can on local, state and federal levels.”

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