I’ve written a number of times before about the fact that survivors of sexual assault have much worse outcomes when they face doubt and stigma from friends and family after reporting. This has, needless to say, not been a popular position among the “Women lie about rape!” and “I’m not blaming her but what was she doing there/dressed that way/flirting with him” crowds.
I’m receiving a good bit of criticism elsewhere for saying that it’s an asshole move to focus on and pile on someone who is being harassed and threatened, even if they reacted to the harassment and threats in a way you don’t find acceptable. Despite what I’ve had to say about rape victims, I’m apparently only telling people to act like decent human beings because their target is a friend of mine. Of course, that always seems to be the case, no matter who I’m standing up for in exactly the same way. Greg today. Ophelia last week. Rebecca the week before. Who will it be tomorrow?
Or maybe, just maybe, this is a consistent drum I’ve been beating because it’s important. How important?
Psychological trauma dims tens of millions of lives around the world and helps create costs of at least $42 billion a year in the United States alone. But what is trauma, exactly?
Both culturally and medically, we have long seen it as arising from a single, identifiable disruption. You witness a shattering event, or fall victim to it — and as the poet Walter de la Mare put it, “the human brain works slowly: first the blow, hours afterward the bruise.” The world returns more or less to normal, but you do not.
In 1980, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defined trauma as “a recognizable stressor that would evoke significant symptoms of distress in almost everyone” — universally toxic, like a poison.
But it turns out that most trauma victims — even survivors of combat, torture or concentration camps — rebound to live full, normal lives. That has given rise to a more nuanced view of trauma — less a poison than an infectious agent, a challenge that most people overcome but that may defeat those weakened by past traumas, genetics or other factors.
Now, a significant body of work suggests that even this view is too narrow — that the environment just after the event, particularly other people’s responses, may be just as crucial as the event itself.
That’s David Dobbs, writing for the New York Times on presentations made this year that are shaping and supporting this view of PTSD.
It’s a smart idea. I’d even consider it obvious, except that most work done on PTSD has been done in the U.S., where individualism has reigned supreme. It took time for family factors to be considered and even longer for the idea that social interactions and environments more generally would play an important part. Still, we’re highly social animals, so things like this shouldn’t surprise us terribly.
Since 2006, Dr. Brandon Kohrt, a psychiatrist and medical anthropologist at George Washington University, has followed the fates of Nepalese children who returned to their villages after serving with the Maoist rebels during their country’s 1996-2006 civil war.
All 141 in the study, 5 to 14 years old when they joined the rebels, experienced violence and other events considered traumatic, aside from their separation from family. Yet their postwar mental health depended not on their exposure to war but on how their families and villages received them.
In villages where the children were stigmatized or ostracized, they suffered high, persistent levels of post-traumatic stress disorder. But in villages that readily and happily reintegrated them (usually via rituals or conventions specifically designed to do so), they experienced no more mental distress than did peers who had never gone to war. The lasting harm of being a child soldier, it seemed, arose not from the war but from social isolation and conflict afterward.
This finding is echoed in studies of American soldiers returning home: PTSD runs higher among veterans who cannot reconnect with supportive people and new opportunities.
What this all means is that we choose the outcomes for the traumatized. Both by the kinds of institutional support we offer and by how we treat individuals who have experienced traumatic events. We can’t just point to the people “over there” who caused the original trauma, assuming there was even agency behind the event(s), and lay the blame elsewhere. Even when we don’t feel capable of nurturing, we still have the option to stand back and at least not make things worse.
Victims of trauma are our collective responsibility. How we treat them matters. What role will you play in their trauma or recovery?
Via Neuroanthropology, where Daniel Lende has more links and information on the phenomenon.