“Psychologists stay home!” – How the Mental Health Needs of Disaster Victims can’t be met by Foreigners

Posted by Gabriel Armas-Cardona on May 12, 2015

Yesterday, IRIN (a humanitarian news and analysis organization) published a strongly worded opinion piece titled “Psychologists stay home: Nepal doesn’t need you.” The author of the piece is a clinical psychologist with experience working in disaster areas. Her take home point is captured by the title: Foreign (primarily Western) psychologists cannot help the Nepalese.

“[W]e know from research that in the aftermath of a natural disaster psychologists armed with “talking therapies” have little to contribute: survivors need to go through the natural grief process and the vast majority will not develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), nor any other psychological disorder. Social support and time will heal psychological wounds.”

She also artfully brings in how Westerners blindly seek to come in and help, often with minimal understanding of the area or the people, but wouldn’t accept the reverse situation. She hits the nail on the head when after the 2009 earthquake in Italy, she prodded a psychosocial manager that had rejected the idea of bringing in Chinese counselors to help the victims.

“But why not? If an Italian psychologist, in this case me, can fly off to China to provide therapy, why not the other way round? The neocolonial mentality is sometimes so engrained in parts of the aid sector that we fail to notice our paternalism: “we” can help “them,” but it never occurs to us that “they” may be able to help “us”?”

A funny and insightful podcast by someone studying treatments for depression in rural Africa came to a similar solution.

“We had a lot of trouble with western mental health workers who came here immediately after the genocide and we had to ask some of them to leave.

They came and their practice did not involve being outside in the sun where you begin to feel better. There was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again. There was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy. There was no acknowledgement of the depression as something invasive and external that could actually be cast out again.

Instead they would take people one at a time into these dingy little rooms and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. We had to ask them to leave.”

In the end, the researcher participated in a traditional ritual to exorcise his demons, which involved covering himself him ram’s blood and drinking a coke.

Gabriel Armas-Cardona is a legal officer at Lawyers Collective.