With all the tens of millions of dollars of aid we generous Americans have been sending the tsunami victims in Southeast Asia, there’s one commodity we haven’t been shipping over (thank heaven)–“grief counselors,” those ubiquitous therapists who nowadays descend on the site of every disaster in America, from Columbine to 9/11.
That’s because, as it turns out, at least some of the victim countries have had the sense to tell the mental-health professionals with their fancy degrees to stay home. As Sally Satel, herself a psychiatrist who’s taught at Yale, reports in National Review Online, what most of the disaster survivors in Indonesia and elsewhere really need are food, shelter, working toilets, and the opportunity to return their lives to something close to normal as quickly as possible.
That’s not to say, as Satel points out, that many of the survivors aren’t experiencing grief, sleeplessness, and other symptoms of mental trauma right now. But as she points out:
“Crying, trouble sleeping, problems concentrating, a profound sense of dislocation are not pathological within the first few weeks after a catastrophe. Mental-health expertise should be reserved for people who remain disabled by these symptoms after three months or so, the time they typically start to fade.”
Satel is commenting on a Washington Post profile of Sri Lanka’s only psychiatrist, Ganesan (like most Sri Lankans, he goes by only one name). Ganesan, who’s been doing everything from coordinating foreign aid to transporting corpses in his own pickup truck–everything, that is, except therapy–told the Post: “To talk about psychological needs when you’ve got thousands of people using one toilet in a refugee camp — it’s absurd.”
“The main issue at this stage is to ensure the physical safety, locate missing friends and family members, and disseminate accurate information. Schools are slated to open on January 10, the end of the country’s annual holiday. More than any therapy will promote effective coping by maintaining routines for children and keeping them busy.
“In short, the prescription is this: Minimize disorder and plan for the future — and for the vast majority, coping will follow naturally.
“This kind of approach is anathema to a swath of contemporary mental-health workers. Dubbed ‘trauma tourists’ by some mischievous colleagues of mine, they are quick to impose Western-style therapies without regard to victims’ needs, their natural healing systems, or their very conception of what ‘mental illness’ might be. ‘This is not what a doctor should do,’ says Ganesan who has tried to talk agencies out of sending grief counselors.”
Ganesan told the Post that his country’s Buddhist faith could help survivors deal with the disaster more than any grief counselor, for Buddhism teaches that suffering is part of human existence, something to be borne with grace and courage. As Satel notes:
“After World War II the renowned psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl pointed out, ‘Suffering is not always a pathological phenomenon…suffering may well be a human achievement.’ In other words, suffering can be ennobling. And even when calamity does not strengthen its casualties, a possibility that Frankl certainly acknowledged, it is unclear that clinical intervention will diminish the anguish.”
Ironically, the main beneficiaries of the grief-counseling seem not to be the natives of the affected countries but Western tourists. As this Associated Press story reports:
“Western tour operators have sent counselors to help returning tourists. The British, Finnish and American Red Cross societies also have dispatched psychological support teams either to help tourists or to train local Red Cross workers, said Janet Rodenburg, who heads the Reference Center for Psychological Support of the international Red Cross.”