Is PTSD an internal problem causing social problems? Or the other way around?


I am finally getting around to read Ethan Watters’ polemic Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of American Psyche (Free Press, 2010). In this book he details the way America has exported not only its pharmaceuticals but have redefined mental health and disease. As the promotional material on the front cover says, the book “[uncovers] America’s role in homogenizing how the world defines wellness and healing.”

As I read the book, I find he is overly negative and pessimistic, even as he right points out some major bumbling when bringing Western mental health ideas to the world. And yet, consider this…

In chapter two he examines the way Western mental health providers flooded (bad pun but appropriate picture) Sri Lanka after the Tsunami to treat all the PTSD that would most definitely come to light. They “educated” the country about the symptoms of PTSD and trained caregivers and counselors to provide counseling interventions. When certain symptoms weren’t presenting widely, some helpers assumed victims must be living in denial.

Watters describes how one researcher began looking to see how Sri Lankans described symptoms of poor responses to trauma–instead of using a pre-determined set of symptoms. This researcher concluded that Sri Lankans experience trauma quite differently.

1. Sri Lankan PTSD symptoms were primarily physical in nature.

2. Sri Lankans did not identify anxiety, numbing, fear symptoms but rather identified isolation and loss of social connection as key to PTSD symptoms.

The root problem in PTSD? 

So, is PTSD internal or external? Intrapsychic or social? Most Westerners think of psychopathology in terms of the individual. A sick individual will likely find their social lives eroding and less supportive. It appears Sri Lankans think of pathology in terms of social connection which when broken results in some of the physical symptoms. So, does trauma cause psychological damage which in turn harms social networks…or does trauma harm social networks which in turn causes distress?

Your answer to this question likely reveals whether you see the world as a community or a group of individuals.  Or, your answer reveals whether you focus on universal human experiences or constructed human experiences.

One semi-helpful answer

My answer? Our minds, bodies, spirits and social networks are not disconnected. While distinct entities, we are far more connected than disconnected. To paraphrase the bible, if the eye is sick, the whole body is sick. Psychopathology does not reside only in one location, even if we can see it’s impact in one specific location (e.g., cells not functioning). We would not assume that seeing the destruction after a tornado would be all that is needed to find the cause of that same tornado. Whatever interventions we devise, we will not find a one-size-fits-all solution. For some, we will intervene first in the interior of their lives (medications, private counseling). For others, we will start with social reconnection.

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Filed under counseling, counseling science, counseling skills, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Psychology, ptsd

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