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Exporting trauma: can the talking cure do more harm than good?

A few years ago Andrew Solomon had to get into a wedding bed with a ram. An entire village, taking a day off from farming, danced around the unlikely couple to a pounding drumbeat, draping them both in cloth until Solomon began to think he was going to faint. At this point the ram was slaughtered along with two cockerels, and Solomon’s naked body was drenched in the animals’ blood, before being washed clean by the village women spitting water onto him.

Solomon had been taking part in a traditional Senegalese ceremony to exorcise depression as research for his book The Noonday Demon. “I discovered that depression exists universally, but the ways that it’s understood, treated, conceptualised or even experienced can vary a great deal from culture to culture,” he says now. He describes being the subject of the ceremony as “one of the most fascinating experiences of my life”.

When in Rwanda, interviewing women raising children born of rape for another book, Solomon mentioned his experience in Senegal to a Rwandan man who ran an organisation helping these women. The Rwandan told Solomon they had similar ceremonies in his country and that the disconnect between the western and traditional approaches to treating mental health had caused problems in the immediate aftermath of the genocide. “Westerners were optimistically hoping they could heal what had gone wrong,” says Solomon. “But people who hadn’t been through the genocide couldn’t understand how bad it was and their attempts to reframe everything were somewhere between offensive and ludicrous. The Rwandan felt that the aid workers were intrusive and re-traumatising people by dragging them back through their stories.”

As the Rwandan, paraphrased by Solomon, puts it: “Their practice did not involve being outside in the sun where you begin to feel better. There was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again. There was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy. Instead they would take people one at a time into these dingy little rooms and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. We had to ask them to leave.”

The best way to improve mental health after a crisis is something NGOs working in Ebola-hit countries are currently considering. International Medical Corps (IMC) recently released a report assessing the psychological needs of communities affected by the disease. IMC’s mental health adviser Inka Weissbecker is aware that they must avoid previous mistakes by international NGOs. “Whenever there is a humanitarian crisis agencies flood in,” she says. “Though with good intentions, counsellors turn up from the UK [for example] and often create more problems … It’s a very foreign concept in many countries to sit down with a stranger and talk about your most intimate problems.”

During the recovery from Haiti’s earthquake five years ago mental health researcher Guerda Nicolas was even stronger in her message to American counsellors who wanted to ease the trauma of survivors. “Please stay away – unless you’ve really, really done the homework,” she said. “Psychological issues don’t transcend around the globe.”

The fact is that different cultures have different views of the mind, says Ethan Watters, the author of Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche. “In the west a soldier coming home might be troubled by their battlefield trauma. They think of the PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] as a sickness in their mind and they take time away from responsibilities to heal. That makes sense to us and it’s neither wrong nor right but conforms to our beliefs about PTSD. For a Sri Lankan, to take time away from their social group makes no sense because it is through their place in that group that they find their deepest sense of themselves.”

While researching his book Watters spoke to anthropologists who had in-depth knowledge of Sri Lanka’s culture and history. They said that western approaches after the tsunami had done real damage in the country where there were certain ways to talk about violence due to the long-running civil war. He says: “Into that very delicate balance came western trauma counsellors with this idea that the real way to heal was truth-telling, where you talked about the violence and emotionally relived it. That’s a western idea, it makes sense here, but it does not make sense in these villages. It had potential to spark cycles of revenge violence.”

International NGOs describe dealing with the mental health of a community after a disaster as the “psychosocial” response – meaning caring for individual and collective psychological wellbeing. The UN advertises dozens of jobs under this keyword and the American Red Cross says that since the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami there has been “increasing recognition of the need for psychosocial responses”. It also says – perhaps implicitly acknowledging that mistakes have been made in the past – “we are still in the process of identifying and documenting good practices”.

As awareness has grown that the western talking cure is not always the answer, global organisations have tried to find better ways to help. In 2007 WHO issued guidelines to advise humanitarians on their work to improve mental health and psychosocial wellbeing in emergencies. Coordination between the organisations working in the post-disaster zone as a key recommendation. Weissbecker says that this is crucial. “We reach out to organisations who might not know about the guidelines to coordinate,” she says. “It’s part of every agency’s job to watch out for other organisations doing this kind of work.”

The guidelines also stress learning local cultural practices. IMC now always start with an initial assessment that looks at the understanding and treatment of mental health that exists in that country before putting any programmes in place. “We usually don’t provide direct mental health services to the affected population because we feel that most of the time that’s not culturally appropriate and not sustainable,” says Weissbecker. In many communities, she has been impressed with indigenous coping strategies. “In Ethiopia people say depression is related to loss,” she says. “So the community takes up a collection and they all give them something. This is very positive.” IMC meets with traditional healers and builds up relationships with them.

Many argue that for some mental illnesses western expertise can be genuinely helpful. In Ethiopia Weissbecker’s team discovered a man with schizophrenia who had been tied up in a goat shed for seven years. “Once this family was connected to our services he started taking medication was unchained and participating in family life,” she says. “The father held up the chains to the community and said, ‘look I used these chains on my son and now he’s part of the family again’. People will throw stones because they are understandably frightened [of people with severe conditions].”

The Rwandan that Solomon met questioned whether talking therapy helped survivors of the Rwandan genocide. “His point of view was that a lot of what made sense in the west didn’t make any sense to him,” says Solomon. But Survivors Fund, a British NGO that works in Rwanda, has found that western-style group therapy sessions have really helped women who were raped. “It’s 20 years since then but many of the women our groups have never told their story before,” says Dr Jemma Hogwood who runs counselling programmes for the charity. “A lot of women say it’s a big relief to talk,” she says.

Hogwood has been working in Rwanda for four years but hasn’t heard of traditional ceremonies like the one described by Solomon. The group therapy sessions incorporate local practices such as praying before and after, as this is something the women wanted to do. Weissbecker adds that one-on-one therapy with expats can help people who have experienced extreme violence, rape or torture. “Some of them want to talk to foreigners because they don’t trust people in their communities,” she says. “So then it’s also important for them to have that one-on-one option.”

Some feel that aid should be focussed on food, medicines, shelter, and stay away from mental health. International relations academic Vanessa Pupavac has researched the effect of the war in former Yugoslavia, and has argued that “trauma is displacing hunger in western coverage of wars and disasters … Trauma counselling, or what is known as psychosocial intervention, has become an integral part of the humanitarian response in wars.” The problem with this, she believes, is that blanket-defining a whole population as traumatised becomes “a reinforcing factor that inhibits people from recovery”. Her recent work with Croatian veterans found that the PTSD label stops them from moving on with their lives and contributing to society.

“There are more Croatian veterans on post-traumatic stress disorder pensions now than there were ten years ago,” she tells me. “The international-PTSD-framing of people’s experiences has not only inhibited recovery but has also created social, economic and political problems for postwar Croatia.” She believes NGOs should stop psychosocial programmes altogether because they disrupt communities’ own coping strategies.

But this point of view is rejected by Weissbecker and her colleagues, who don’t accept “the romantic idea that without intervention everything will be fine”. The response to mental illness in many countries is often harmful, she says: “Psychotic patients are chained. Children with developmental disorders are at risk of abuse. Mothers with depression have a higher risk of malnourished children. People with anxiety are often given benzodiazepines which can be very addictive.” The solution, Weissbecker says, is to bring together global and local expertise.

The best experts to bridge the gap between international and local experience are those who might not have a health or psychology background, but have deep knowledge about cultural differences: anthropologists. Since the Ebola outbreak there is a growing recognition of this discipline’s role in emergencies. The American Anthropological Association has asked its members to become more involved in the west African countries hit by the disease. It argues that if anthropologists had been more involved from the start of the outbreak more people wouldn’t have caught the disease due to misunderstandings over traditional burials and conspiracy theories about westerners spreading the illness.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has employed anthropologists to inform their work for years but one of them, Beverley Stringer, says there’s been a “surge” in interest in what they can offer humanitarian work. “I was at a seminar at the Royal Anthropology Institute recently where they said ‘finally the humanitarian world is interested in our perspective’,” she says. “They’re quite excited about that.”

But Stringer warns that getting anthropologists to work for NGOs should not just be a case of parachuting in an expert; aid workers and volunteers on the ground need to recognise that their own experience gives them insight. “If mums aren’t coming to get their kids vaccinated you don’t need to be an anthropologist to work out why,” she says. “My work is to encourage curiosity and to equip teams with the skills to be able to understand.”

Whether it’s through working more with locals and anthropologists – or ideally both – there is recognition that cultural insight is essential for preventing aid workers from causing damage when they are trying to do good.

“I think enlisting the anthropologists in this process – people who truly know about how to go into other countries and be culturally sensitive – is very important,” says Watters.

“One anthropologist asked me to imagine the scenario reversed. Imagine that after 9/11 or Katrina these healers come from Mozambique to knock on the doors of family members of the deceased to say ‘we need to help you through this ritual to sever your relationship with the dead’. That would make no sense to us. But we seem to have no problem doing the reverse.”