A “daily stressors & trauma” debate & the temptation of mental health evaluation for everything

In a special issue on “Conflict, violence and health” earlier this year, Social Science and Medicine published an editorial on trauma-focused versus psychosocial perspectives in humanitarian aid that Ken Miller and I wrote (see my blog post from June 29th, 2010 for related material). This week the second October 2010 issue of the same journal includes a critique of our editorial from the accomplished refugee trauma researcher Frank Neuner and our response to this critique. Lest you think that publishing a second October issue in mid-September is the sign of general silliness, let me inform you that (1) the virtual world resides somewhere in the future, and (2) Social Science and Medicine consistently publishes high-quality health research and — notably — debates (like ours) in subfields that could use a healthy does of academic energy.

Our debate primarily concerns how best to provide “psychosocial” and “trauma-related” mental health services to displaced populations (i.e., refugees). The three articles are a somewhat academic read (all of us are, after all, academics), but I would not say that the topic is purely academic. Psychosocial aid and trauma interventions are hot topics in humanitarian aid, and agencies’ perspectives on these issues has direct relevance for the design of programs in the field.

I won’t repeat the detailed back-and-forth here, as you can read the articles yourselves (if you have trouble accessing the links above please let me know). I do, however, want to highlight one important point of agreement. Even though we reiterate this point in our response, I think Neuner says it better in his critique of the editorial:

Reducing hardship and daily stress is without a doubt a key objective of humanitarian assistance. No one would disagree that increasing security in refugee camps, improving child protection and medical care, reducing violence and poverty, increasing awareness of gender issues, and reducing discrimination should be high priority goals that deserve much attention by humanitarian agencies. The respective programs should clearly state their goals and be evaluated according to their specific aims. However, it is premature to claim that such programs heal psychological disorders or foster mental health. The increasing tendency to justify widespread programs on the basis of mental health is worrisome and seems to reflect the tendency to comply with donors’ fashions. Why must a program that aims at reducing discrimination of former child soldiers also improve mental health? Reducing discrimination, just like improving development and reducing violence is a worthy objective on its own right.

The increasing tendency to judge interventions in refugee camps — even interventions with the label “psychosocial” — solely by examining rates of psychiatric diagnoses pre- and post-intervention is indeed a problem. Having participated in such evaluations, I can attest that apart from the considerable cross-cultural assessment issues and challenging diagnostic environment, these efforts leave me with the sinking feeling that many in humanitarian aid have succumbed to the temptation of scientific — or perhaps better put, “scientistic” — validation. In other words, evaluations that were specific to specific programs (e.g., measuring change in social and economic indicators in order to judge child soldier reintegration programs) became mental health evaluations (measuring reductions in anxiety in order to judge child soldier reintegration programs), thereby getting the stamp of approval of medical science. This curious turn of events has meant that many programs (at least those not directly tied to food, water, and other basic needs) are now “sold” to donors in the language of mental health, even though they may working towards some other — also worthy — objective.

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