A critique of seven assumptions behind psychological trauma programmes in war-affected areas

Soc Sci Med. 1999 May;48(10):1449-62. doi: 10.1016/s0277-9536(98)00450-x.


Programmes costing millions of dollars to address 'posttraumatic stress' in war zones have been increasingly prominent in humanitarian aid operations, backed by UNICEF, WHO, European Community Humanitarian Office and many nongovernmental organisations. The assumptions underpinning this work, which this paper critiques with particular reference to Bosnia and Rwanda, reflect a globalisation of Western cultural trends towards the medicalisation of distress and the rise of psychological therapies. This paper argues that for the vast majority of survivors posttraumatic stress is a pseudocondition, a reframing of the understandable suffering of war as a technical problem to which short-term technical solutions like counselling are applicable. These concepts aggrandise the Western agencies and their 'experts' who from afar define the condition and bring the cure. There is no evidence that war-affected populations are seeking these imported approaches, which appear to ignore their own traditions, meaning systems, and active priorities. One basic question in humanitarian operations is: whose knowledge is privileged and who has the power to define the problem? What is fundamental is the role of a social world, invariably targeted in today's 'total' war and yet still embodying the collective capacity of survivor populations to mourn, endure and rebuild.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Altruism
  • Child
  • Counseling / organization & administration
  • Data Collection
  • Europe
  • Female
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Health Services / organization & administration*
  • Program Development
  • Program Evaluation
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / therapy*
  • United Nations
  • Warfare*
  • World Health Organization