Collective Trauma and Challenges to Diplomacy

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A women sits with her family in a tent at the Khazer refugee camp in east Mosul, Iraq. One of her son’s suffers from nightmares and cries at the sound of airplanes, symptoms of trauma brought on by years of war.
A women sits with her family in a tent at the Khazer refugee camp in east Mosul, Iraq. One of her son’s suffers from nightmares and cries at the sound of airplanes, symptoms of trauma brought on by years of war.

Collective Trauma and Challenges to Diplomacy

There are currently more than 300 million people around the world suffering from depression, anxiety, and a variety of other mental illnesses. Though treatment is available, close to two-thirds of people suffering from a mental illness never seek help from a medical professional. Last week, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor hosted a Facebook Live event with Dr. Sousan Abadian, a Franklin Fellow with the Office of International Religious Freedom. Dr. Abadian’s research focuses on gender and atrocity prevention, as well as healing collective trauma and restoring cultural resilience, key factors in ending cycles of violence and poverty worldwide.

Collective trauma refers to an event or series of events that affects an entire community, often leading to more long-term mental health problems that can be transmitted transgenerationally or across communities. Thus, diplomats, journalists, workers from the nonprofit sector, researchers, emergency response teams, and other members of the global community who work with traumatized communities abroad are vulnerable to developing mental health challenges due to the nature of their work and surroundings.

Mental illnesses are often stigmatized, forcing many individuals to suffer in silence. In the context of diplomacy, mental health remains a pertinent issue. The mental health problems that are associated with collective trauma can cause individuals or communities to develop a fear of and mistrust for outsiders. Dr. Abadian explained that people suffering from trauma often isolate themselves in an effort to avoid remembering or processing difficult emotions. Because the response to trauma is often fight or flight, individuals and groups can also be more aggressive than usual. Thus, collective trauma may complicate diplomatic and cultural engagement efforts as it causes some individuals or communities to be less able and willing to cooperate and collaborate with those trying to assist them.

Dr. Abadian likened cultural institutions to a collective immune system and collective trauma to a virus. Not all collective traumas are the same, explained Dr. Abadian, and some are so severe that not only whole groups are traumatized but also key individuals and traditional cultural institutions responsible for healing are destroyed. This sets up conditions for a perfect storm that Dr. Abadian compared to having a pandemic at the same time that the medical community has been wiped out. Under these conditions, trauma is likely to be replicated and reproduced within a community.

Mental health has a great bearing on the way that individuals and groups interact with those around them. Collective trauma impacts the way that communities deal with diplomats, journalists, and emergency response teams, but it also impacts the way that they relate to other impacted communities, and this tendency towards either isolation or aggression hinders the healing process.

If the members of the global community that work with victims of collective trauma abroad are not aware of the effects that their presence may have on affected communities, or are not aware of how working with communities affected by trauma might impact their own mental health, then diplomacy becomes difficult. Dr. Abadian suggested that training programs would be highly effective, as would a dedication to compassion, care, and understanding. However, mental health is a problem that affects a large portion of the global population, not just traumatized communities or those that work with them. Protecting the rights of people with disabilities remains a top priority for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor as “honoring human rights is the primary way of preventing the cycle of trauma,” according to Dr. Abadian.

About the Author: Ashley Faler is an Intern in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.