Under the insidious influence of the trauma industry, argues Yvonne McEwen, people are learning not to cope with tragedy
'I am not an expert of the unconscious and the mind's depths, but I do know that few people are and that those few are the most cautious.' (Primo Levi, The Drowned and The Saved)
On 14 October 1934, the worst British mining disaster took place at the Universal Colliery, Senghenydd, south Wales, when 439 men lost their lives. The Senghenydd disaster occurred in an area of Wales where nearly every male was involved in the mining industry. Most households felt the deaths and some families had more than one member killed. Widows and orphans were forced to struggle on in a state of poverty.
During the years of the First World War, from 1914 to 1918, 6600 British colliers lost their lives in pit accidents. The highest recorded number of deaths was 1401 in 1918. Colliery deaths and disasters were the extreme side of coalmining. Occupational injury and disease caused long-term disability, which produced poverty and mental and physical health problems for all the family.
Right up until the strike of 1984-85, when the industry was fighting for its survival, miners and their families paid an extremely high price for their principles. The year-long strike brought with it enormous social costs and negative implications for the short and long-term future of miners, their families and communities. It was one of the worst social disasters that we have witnessed in Britain this century, yet its effect went almost uncharted and unrecorded by social historians, journalists, medicine and psychology.
How did they cope? There were no trauma counsellors, therapists, psychologists or social workers queuing up to give them help, support, or to carry out crisis intervention work. What about the now familiar sight of lawyers being interviewed about the rights of their clients, or the claims for post-traumatic stress that would be lodged? The only people who made themselves available to the mining community then were the predators of the financial services industry, many of them questionable in their motives, looking for redundancy cheques to 'invest'.
The community was damaged, and professional onlookers stood by and watched it happen. Coping with that type of abandonment would be a lesson for all in today's booming industry for the manufacturing and nurturing of victims.
Throughout history humans have survived and transcended war, plague, flood, famine, drought, and environmental and technological disaster. But centuries of coping strategies have been reduced in the past 25 years to the consensus that what's needed is psychological analysis and, in the past 10 years particularly, intervention and therapy.
As the psychological and counselling services and industry have boomed, this alleged science has become an influential force affecting all aspects of our everyday lives - how we live, work, love, play, eat, relax, sexually perform, grieve and die. Counselling practitioners appear on television shows, have columns in newspapers and magazines and use every major disaster, national scandal and high-profile court case to tout their pet theories and therapies.
We have become used to hearing about all kinds and types of victims. In essence, we have allowed ourselves to become a nation of willing victims and reluctant survivors.
Take for example post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD has become the fashionable condition of the 1990s. The perceived wisdom is that if you have been through a traumatic experience the end result will probably be the development of PTSD. Trauma gurus have now reached the stage of diagnosing it in epidemic proportions.
This alleged disorder has never been properly scientifically validated and its recognition, identification and diagnosis are based on biased anecdotal findings. It is one of the most overused, over-abused and badly researched areas of psychology and psychiatry. One of the many disturbing aspects of this alleged condition can be found in the diagnostic procedure. Many professionals start out with the assumption that PTSD exists in the individual, and this inhibits the desire to look for any other pathology, physical or mental. It is unacceptable to have complacent professionals diagnosing conditions because they fail to take full and accurate case histories which might lead to proper diagnoses. There are serious social, cultural, financial, human rights and employment implications for this alleged disorder being scientifically validated.
The PTSD mindset has taken precedence on many occasions over good clinical practice. There is a high degree of acceptance by the professionals of the glaring omissions in the literature, which might question the validity of this alleged disorder. The only conclusion can be that they are more ignorant of the needs of victims of trauma than they care to admit - or that they are comfortable with the definition because it suits their academic or entrepreneurial purposes.
Post-traumatic stress needs to be recognised for what it is - not a disorder but a syndrome, and not just a medical one. The biggest contributor to the stress or distress experienced is often the damage which society and the therapeutic professions perpetrate on the victim following the initial traumatic event.
Within the professions there is a serious lack of consistency as to what constitutes a traumatic event, and whether it produces victims. Why is the road traffic accident victim not afforded the same level of psychological intervention and support as is given to the disaster victim? Both lives can be equally shattered. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the disaster victim is more high-profile, and a better career advancement tool when he appears on the CV.
There are now more definitions and examples of victims than there are of survivors. Are all the people around us - within our family, friends and community - that we know have suffered terrible traumatic experiences but survived in spite of them, victims? What is the difference between a 'situation victim' and a 'life victim?' What is a 'victim by contamination or proximity'? If the mental health professionals cannot agree and deliver a proper, just and ethical definition then it will be left to the courts to decide, further adding to the anguish of the individual.
Do the armchair Jeremiahs of the professions realise that there are cultural differences in the acceptance of victimhood? Not every culture needs, wants, approves or allows for victim status. It is perceived to be unhealthy and unhelpful for the long-term development of the individual or the community. Yet in our society the mantra of the 1990s has become 'I am a victim'. It appears to be so much easier, not to mention beneficial, to be a victim than simply to cope.
For some people, becoming a victim can afford you a full-time celebrity occupation, particularly if you have been in a high-profile trauma. By the time that the TV, radio and newspapers have finished with you, then it's on to the next stage, chat shows. Next we have the public speaking engagements and attempts at authorship, in newspaper articles or special interest journals. The greatest reward of all is the television documentary, docudrama film and serialised paperback. It can be very traumatic being a victim by the time you have made your way through media therapy.
The whole victim industry has become a farce and yet there appears to be no end to its growth and entrepreneurial spirit. It has attracted voyeurs, trauma junkies and inadequates into its ranks of therapists and counsellors, people who are looking for their kicks and a sense of purpose through the tragedy of others. The victim industry has survived by persuading the public that there is a definition, answer and therapy for all of life's ills and traumas. This sham (scam?) will end only when people are educated about the lack of scientific validity of what is being claimed.
A worrying culture of victimisation and secondary victimisation has grown up in the West over the past 10 years. There have been many lives destroyed by it, but conversely careers and an industry have been built on it. It is now time for a reappraisal of the known literature and practice. Fresh, uncontaminated research should be carried out into the multiple complexities of trauma with its psychological outcomes.
The best possible service that we could give victims is to acknowledge the art and act of survival.
It is disturbing, if not tragic and offensive, that we take with us no message from the countless testimonies of survivors who have coped with great tragedies over this century. We should learn from them that there is something deep within all of us that no psychologist, therapist or counsellor can ever begin to compete with or match - and that is the indomitable human spirit and its passion for survival.
Yvonne McEwen has dealt with trauma survivors for the past 25 years at a national and international level
Reproduced from LM issue 118, March 1999