In the Journals

Local Responses to Trauma and PTSD: a special issue of Transcultural Psychiatry

The latest issue of Transcultural Psychiatry is devoted to “Local Responses to Trauma and PTSD.” 

The Editorial Introduction by Devon E. Hinton and Laurence J. Kirmayer is titled “Local responses to trauma: Symptom, affect, and healing:”

 “This article provides an introduction to the thematic issue of Transcultural Psychiatry on local responses to trauma. To illustrate how local responses to trauma may be therapeutic, we consider the multiple dimensions or domains that may be targeted by healing rituals and interventions. We then outline a theoretical model of the generation of trauma-related symptoms and distress. We present the multiplex model of symptom generation which posits multiple cognitive, social, and physiological mechanisms by which various triggers can lead to severe distress among trauma victims in acute episodes, and which may be targeted in treatment. More persistent forms of distress can be explained in terms of the effects of persistent mood states and associated modes of cognitive processing and behavior that render individuals vulnerable to chronic symptoms and acute exacerbations. The beneficial effects of healing rituals and interventions may occur, in part, by inducing positive affective states associated with a flexible mind-set. We conclude by summarizing some of the contributions of the papers in this issue to understanding local therapeutic processes of healing.”


Here is the table of contents along with abstracts:

Children enacting idioms of witchcraft and spirit possession as a response to trauma: Therapeutically beneficial, and for whom? (Ria Reis)

This article examines children’s enactment of spirit possession idioms and witchcraft in Africa including the meanings such idioms provide and the local healing resources they mobilize. Idioms of haunting spirits in Northern Uganda and witch-children elsewhere in Africa can be interpreted as manifestations of social crises and mass traumatic stress. On the other hand, such idioms also allow children to articulate, reflect upon, and communicate the complex feelings resulting from their precarious positions within families and communities under duress. With the help of Dow’s transactional model of symbolic healing, this article explores obstacles to the effectivity of the rich variety of symbolic healing available for haunting spirits in Uganda and points to the generational gap between children and their families and communities. Elsewhere, witchcraft idioms may act as a healing resource at the group level, but at the expense of the accused child. The idioms of evil spirits and witchcraft speak of these children’s navigation of the moral universe of their postconflict communities. Given that children’s appraisal of their experiences through these notions may also exacerbate their anxiety, interdisciplinary research examining the microprocesses that lead to children being haunted or accused, including emotional and physiological levels effects, is urgently needed.


Collective trauma processing: Dissociation as a way of processing postwar traumatic stress in Guinea Bissau (Joop de Jong and Ria Reis)

Guidelines on psychosocial interventions in postconflict areas commonly mention that interventions should be based on local needs and be built on culture-specific expertise. This paper is based on a dissociative cult, the Kiyang-yang (KYY), in Guinea Bissau. In a previous article, we used a refined definition of the concept of idiom of distress to analyze the dissociative behavior displayed in KYY as a symbolic language addressing politically dangerous truths. This paper uses the concept of “collective trauma processing” to analyze how the idiom offered the local population a pathway to mitigate the consequences of protracted and widespread political violence. The paper first argues that the field of psychotraumatology lacks a comprehensive ecological theory on trauma. Moreover, within clinical psychology and psychiatry, little attention is paid to local cultural healing mechanisms addressing traumatic stress. This paper is an effort to study such mechanisms in their own right. To compare trauma processing mechanisms across the globe, we propose to analyze trauma processing mechanisms with the help of a comprehensive model discerning five ontological dimensions that are considered to be involved in suffering and are addressed in healing approaches. Our paper describes similarities and differences between psychological healing traditions and collective trauma processing within the West African context of Guinea Bissau. We will illustrate how the KYY movement uses the idiom of dissociation as both a collective expression of distress and as a vehicle to process social suffering and traumatic stress as a circular phenomenon.


Dead-baby dreams, transfiguration and recovery from infant death trauma in northeast Brazil (Marilyn Nations)

Maternal reactions to infant death in Northeast Brazil have been at the epicenter of anthropological debate since the 1980s. This ethnographic study of 45 death narratives by bereaved mothers collected from 1979–1989 in Pacatuba, Ceará, Brazil, refutes existing claims of mothers’ “selective neglect” and “indifference” towards sick babies and emotionally empty grief response. I argue that through dead-baby dreams—and their imaginary transfiguration—grieving mothers alleviate infant death trauma. Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, definitive loss, and personal guilt—the social seeds of depression—are reframed to deny death’s finality and exonerate mothers from crippling self-blame. By transfiguring lingering mental images of the tiny cold corpse, mothers remold the irreversibility and definitiveness of death, gaining a sense of control over its unpredictable “jolt.” In the politically oppressive Northeast Brazil—where social justice remains “an illusion”—mothers dream to preserve their own mental sanity and to recover from death’s cruel aftermath. Any interpretation of mourning behavior must be contextualized within the local moral world and its “assumed structure of reality” to avoid demoralizing grieving Brazilian mothers and compounding their suffering. “You see, the only thing a poor woman truly owns that no one can borrow, cheat, steal or rob from her … is her imagination!” (Dona Chiquinha grieving death of her 10 children, Pacatuba, Ceará, Brazil).


Redressing First Nations historical trauma: Theorizing mechanisms for indigenous culture as mental health treatment (Joseph P. Gone) (OA)

Indigenous “First Nations” communities have consistently associated their disproportionate rates of psychiatric distress with historical experiences of European colonization. This emphasis on the socio-psychological legacy of colonization within tribal communities has occasioned increasingly widespread consideration of what has been termed historical trauma within First Nations contexts. In contrast to personal experiences of a traumatic nature, the concept of historical trauma calls attention to the complex, collective, cumulative, and intergenerational psychosocial impacts that resulted from the depredations of past colonial subjugation. One oft-cited exemplar of this subjugation—particularly in Canada—is the Indian residential school. Such schools were overtly designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” This was institutionally achieved by sequestering First Nations children from family and community while forbidding participation in Native cultural practices in order to assimilate them into the lower strata of mainstream society. The case of a residential school “survivor” from an indigenous community treatment program on a Manitoba First Nations reserve is presented to illustrate the significance of participation in traditional cultural practices for therapeutic recovery from historical trauma. An indigenous rationale for the postulated efficacy of “culture as treatment” is explored with attention to plausible therapeutic mechanisms that might account for such recovery. To the degree that a return to indigenous tradition might benefit distressed First Nations clients, redressing the socio-psychological ravages of colonization in this manner seems a promising approach worthy of further research investigation.


Making God real and making God good: Some mechanisms through which prayer may contribute to healing (Tanya Marie Luhrmann)

Many social scientists attribute the health-giving properties of religious practice to social support. This paper argues that another mechanism may be a positive relationship with the supernatural, a proposal that builds upon anthropological accounts of symbolic healing. Such a mechanism depends upon the learned cultivation of the imagination and the capacity to make what is imagined more real and more good. This paper offers a theory of the way that prayer enables this process and provides some evidence, drawn from experimental and ethnographic work, for the claim that a relationship with a loving God, cultivated through the imagination in prayer, may contribute to good health and may contribute to healing in trauma and psychosis.


Coping in plain sight: Work as a local response to event-related emotional distress in contemporary U.S. society (Douglas Hollan)

This article examines how middle-class psychotherapy clients in Southern California use work as a coping strategy in the aftermath of distressing life events. It begins by arguing why all such distress in the aftermath of unbidden and unanticipated events are “local” distresses, embedded in particular social and interpersonal contexts, and then discusses the various ways in which people may use cultural resources, including ordinary, mundane, everyday routines and practices, such as work, to express and cope with emotional distress. Three case studies are used to illustrate how work can be used to avoid emotional distress, to conceal it, and also to acknowledge and heal it.

There are also two commentaries in the issue: “Perspectives on trauma and healing from anthropology and social and affective neuroscience” by Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good and “Back from the edge of existence: A critical anthropology of trauma” by Rebecca Lester.