Institutional betrayal: Secret ingredient to PTSD

We live in the world where human frailty and pathology is viewed in individual terms. When we see sickness we imagine that the person must have some weakness in biology, faith, or behavior. Rarely do we think about the role the system or community has played in the development of that person’s pathology. This is true when we think about a person diagnosed with PTSD. We therapists hypothesize about individual factors (personality factors, early childhood experiences (a slight nod to external causes) and neurobiological risk factors) and situation factors (the frequency, duration, and intensity of overwhelming trauma events) when we try to answer the “why” of the development of PTSD in a person.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it fails to take into consideration of known research that suggests that environmental response to an individual’s trauma experiences may be a determining factor in whether PTSD or chronic traumatic reactions form.

In the most recent American Psychologist (2014, 69:6, 575-587), Carly Parnitzke Smith and Jennifer Freyd write about the concept of institutional betrayal. Traumatologists recognize Freyd’s name as the researcher who developed “betrayal trauma theory”, pointing to the especially toxic form of PTSD caused by those who were supposed to be safe and protective. These begin to examine “institutional action and inaction that exacerbate the impact of traumatic experiences…”

How can an institution betray a victim?

When a person trusts that a system designed to defend, respond, protect, or seek justice will do its job after an interpersonal trauma, and when that system either chooses not to respond (omission) or worse, chooses to lay blame at the feet of the victim (commission), institutional betrayal occurs. Examples include law enforcement accusing rape victims of “asking for it” with their clothing, church leaders allowing offender clergy to “leave with their reputations” or refusal to investigate a case of date rape when the reported offender is an important leader in the community.

In summarizing a couple of studies, Smith and Freyd point out that institutional betrayal after a trauma experience leads to higher rates of dissociation, sexual problems, and health difficulties. This is even more likely when the trauma takes place in an environment where protection of the members is trumpeted (i.e., church or military).

What are the common characteristics of betraying institutions?

Smith and Freyd note several characteristics found in institutions at greater risk for betraying members.

  • membership requirements to define in group identity. This produces a need for members to act in ways to maintain such an identity
  • Prestige (both leaders and institutions). Prestige produces both trust and fear, dependency and power
  • Priorities. “Institutional betrayal may remain unchecked when performance or reputation is valued over, or divorced from the well-being of members.” As the authors note, maintaining reputation as a priority will lead to neglect or attack of those who challenge reputation
  • Institutional denial. Blame a few bad apples, avoid institutional blame or responsibility

Those institutions that do make efforts to prevent abuse within its community may still yet fail to respond well. They may fail to use adequate screening procedures, normalize abuse, fail to utilize or follow appropriate response procedures, punish whistleblowers, and aid cover-ups.

What to do?

Smith and Freyd argue that transparency (about past actions/failures to act as well as power structures) and priority to protect the well-being of all members will move institutions away from the risk of betraying individual members. I would argue that the shift to protect moves from the institution as a whole to protection of the most vulnerable.

Let me recommend a few resources that have appeared here in the past:

  1. Diane Langberg’s 5 part video about narcissistic leaders and the institutions they lead. She too describes systemic narcissism.
  2. Why some spiritual leaders abuse (and systems allow it)
  3. Narcissistic systems
  4. Resources to combat narcissism one person at a time


Filed under Abuse, personality, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Psychology

10 responses to “Institutional betrayal: Secret ingredient to PTSD

  1. Tom

    I’m a wee bit skeptical of the tendency to medicalize behavior that most of us would simply characterize as “people behaving badly.” We’ve been doing since Adam and Eve went shopping for fig leaves. Not that betrayal and oppression isn’t bad. It just strikes me as self-serving for psychology to label it a disease.

    • Tom, it is good to remember, however, that everything we do, including worship of God, is mediated through (not necessarily controlled by however) neurons. So, while some do use disease to avoid responsibility, equally troubling are those who chalk everything up to conscious will. For what it is worth, the point in this post is that “People behaving badly” happens at systemic levels, rather than just the individual level.

      • Tom

        Hey Phil, Systemic social behavior is a safer characterization, and really that is what this research is about. I don’t disagree with the broad observations, just Freyd’s betrayal theory. It’s an agenda driven theory that has some empirical problems. She’s retooling, but here, it misses the point that denial and misuse of power is a subtle temptation that affects us all. So, for example, while Jennifer is pointing out bad behavior in others, do you think she would ever admit the contribution of her theory to the recovered memory debacle and resulting trauma that caused? Isn’t that a bit narcissistic?

  2. Annie Abernethy

    Phil, this article is the first I have heard of you, and I am intrigued. I am currently a master’s level student at Regent University in Virginia and am particularly interested in the integration of solid psychology and solid theology. I and a number of beloved friends are in the midst of an investigation involving a missionary who mistreated us in boarding school overseas. The affects of this mistreatment have snowballed through the years, especially as our complaints were initially swept under the rug. Now, almost 30 years later, the scabs are bleeding afresh and talk of PTSD is emerging. I am receiving appropriate therapeutic treatment for the first time at the cost of the agency who employed my abuser. In this process, I am realizing over and over how a society and culture, whose express purpose was to care for MKs (missionary kids), failed miserably to do just that. When your article mentioned sexual difficulties, health problems and dissociation in those who are victims of institutional betrayal, I wanted to shout “amen!” Of course, it is important to remember that the institution was only part of the problem; the sinfulness and broken nature of one individual led to all of this. And thus begins the long lesson on what true forgiveness, healing and reconciliation look like, both for institutions and individual perpetrators and their survivors.

    I plan to read more on this site as I have time between class assignments. I am overjoyed to see this type of discussion being engage in, and I am thankful for those in the field of psychology who recognize the importance of accurately integrating Biblical truth with good therapeutic practice.

    • Welcome to the site Anne. At Regent you probably know Mark Yarhouse, a fellow student of mine while at Wheaton. I think you will find a similar psychology/theology bent in him as well. Sorry to hear about the abuse. As a board member of GRACE (, I have heard so many similar stories of abuse and cover-up.

      • Annie Abernethy

        It’s good to know you are on the board of GRACE. I did speak with Boz about our situation about a year ago. I have not yet met Mark Yarhouse as I primarily take classes online, but I do look forward to meeting him someday. I, too, attended Wheaton in the late 80s and early 90s. It’s a small world! Keep up the good work.

  3. Maryl Smith

    This reminds me of a discussion I had many years ago with Dr. Irene Lubega, who is a leading physician and researcher on HIV transmission in Uganda as well as a woman of faith. I mentioned that everyone I had met from Uganda seemed to be such warm and happy people. At the time I asked her, in light of the horrific destruction and mass murders that had taken place in Uganda under the leadership of Idi Amin and the equally evil dictatorship that had followed him (which was Western-friendly so we heard less about those atrocities), how did the Ugandan people manage to be so happy? I expected to see more of them struggling with PTSD and continuing to live traumatized.
    She thought carefully, then replied, “It is because we had each other. There was no one in our society who didn’t either have a relative or was close to someone who had been tortured or murdered. So there was an innate understanding between us of the pain and trauma that we were walking through. It was a community suffering together so there were places to talk or to remain silent in grief without judgement. We grieved together and we healed together.”
    Then she grew pensive and spoke from her recent experience in the pediatric department at the medical University nearby where she was furthering her studies. “It is very different than the trauma experienced in your country by children who are abused. That is the worst situation possible. When a child is abused they are isolated, hidden, fearful and alone. they are often not believed when they talk. There is frequently no one to help them process the hurt, pain, fear or to bring hope, understanding and a sense of belonging. Those little ones are traumatized in a much worse manner beyond the abuse. They a much harder journey towards health than Ugandan citizens who have endured hundreds of thousands of brutal losses, but can heal in community.”

    I have never forgotten her words. They give shape and understanding to my recognition that a healing environment is frequently more important than the degree of abuse relative to the long-term health and happiness of Individuals who have experienced trauma. Her words continue to impact my work in training midwives and other providers of care how to support healing experiences rather than re-traumatizing experiences within our maternity service communities.

  4. Michelle

    I’m currently a part of the recently settled Class Action lawsuit against the Royal Canadian Mounted Police by several hundred of its female employees across the country. I’m grateful to have recently come across this article. Although I had experiences with a few different individuals, it was feeling betrayed by the organization as a whole that was the worst. This is the first time a professional has articulated how I’ve been feeling. Thank you so much!

    • cindasana

      I’ll second what Michelle has said. I’ve experienced the same thing at the hands of the military. Thanks for this article. I only came across the term “sanctuary trauma” last year but this article, as Michelle said above, definitely articulates exactly what I’ve felt and am feeling.

  5. Pingback: Institutional Betrayal: Secret Ingredient to PTSD - The Aquila Report

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