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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Grief industry to the rescue Add to ...

Help is finally trickling into Haiti, the scene of such unfathomable suffering that the TV news reports are almost unbearable to watch. The people need everything - water, food, medicine, shelter, doctors, rescue specialists and, of course, psychologists. Many of the medical teams sent to Haiti include psychologists. Perhaps they plan to hold group counselling sessions so mothers who have lost five children will be facilitated to freely express their emotions in a safe and nurturing environment.

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Psychologists everywhere are offering their insights into what Haitians are likely going through. "In every moment, the level of emotional anguish ratchets up," says Russell Friedman, who ought to know. He is the director of the Grief Recovery Institute, a counselling organization in California that helps people deal with death and natural disasters. It offers "the highest level of training in the area of helping grievers complete the pain caused by significant emotional losses" - whatever that means.

The idea that crisis counsellors have anything to offer Haiti strikes me as the most astounding hubris. Yet, the underlying assumption of their trade - that anyone who goes through trauma needs a therapist - has become conventional wisdom. There's even help for us. Are you traumatized by the news from Haiti? The American Psychological Association offers this advice: Maintain your daily routines. Get plenty of exercise and rest. And turn off the TV. If symptoms persist, consult a licensed health professional.

The grief industry is bigger than ever, even though it's taken lots of knocks lately. A new study by researchers from Dalhousie University concludes that psychological debriefing after a traumatic event does little good and, in fact, can do harm. "When people are put into a situation and then asked to relive, remember and sometimes even re-enact their feelings and thoughts, it actually makes things worse for them," says Stan Kutcher, co-author of the study.

Yet, the ethos of therapism is so embedded in our culture that psychological counselling is routinely recommended for disaster survivors, for students who have lost a classmate, even for people whose dogs have died. Psychologist Sally Satel says that, days after the tsunami struck Sri Lanka in 2004, U.S. mental health workers were dispatched to the scene. "Psychological scarring needs to be dealt with as quickly as possible," one psychologist told The Washington Post. "The longer we wait, the more danger." Sri Lankan health officials disagreed. "We believe the most important thing is to strengthen local coping mechanisms rather than imposing counselling," said one.

The foundation of the grief industry is something called Critical Incident Stress Management, a technique that was developed in the early 1970s for paramedics, firefighters and other professionals who regularly witnessed traumatic events. It was thought that, if they talked out their feelings and reactions immediately after the event, they'd be less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder later on.

This thoroughly unscientific idea soon spread to ordinary people, including people who had only heard of (not witnessed) traumatic events. Soon the grief professionals began descending on schools any time a child died in some awful way. In the workplace, onsite debriefing services became a standard feature of employee assistance programs. Today, tens of thousands of people are trained in Critical Incident Stress Management and related techniques. Because of the spread of "war, terrorism, school shootings, and natural disasters," says the CISM Foundation, "the need for trained crisis responders has never been greater."

Obviously, some people are unhinged by trauma and loss, to the point where they permanently lose the ability to cope. But most of us are actually quite resilient. The grief industry is built on the premise that human beings are much frailer than they really are. On top of that, it assumes that trained professionals are much better than untrained ones - friends, neighbours, colleagues, family - at helping people cope with terrible events, including those that will eventually affect us all.

Here's part of the career profile for a bereavement counsellor, a profession that now has its own academic degrees, associations, conferences and licensing bodies: "Often when people die, the feelings of grief, anger and dismay of those they have left behind become overwhelming. Individuals or whole families can fall apart as a result of a death, and it requires an outside party to come along and see them through this difficult time."

Not long ago, we had other ways to cope with tragedy and loss. We had community and casseroles. We had friends to sit with through the night. They weren't experts and they didn't have degrees. They didn't pester us to talk about how much it hurt, or how bad we felt. But they kept us company, and they allowed us to share what we wanted with people we knew and trusted.

"Tincture of time," my grandma would counsel when someone had suffered a terrible loss. But what did she know anyway?

As British writer Frank Furedi has observed, the relentlessly expanding role of expertise into the private sphere conveys the message that individuals are unable to manage important aspects of their lives without professional guidance. This holds true not only for grief and trauma, but for parenting (especially parenting!) and relationships in general. "Today every aspect of life from birth [actually, from well before birth]through to school and career to marriage and mourning is subject to professional counselling," he writes. "We live in an age of personal trainers, mentors and facilitators." Some of what they tell us is nonsense, and some is painfully self-evident (see American Psychological Association). But we're supposed to trust it all because it's scientifically based.

A wonderful New Yorker cartoon from 10 years ago shows two cowboys gazing across a canyon, looking at some tiny dots in the distant sky. "Could be buzzards, could be grief counsellors," says one. "Can't tell from here."

As we rush to help the Haitian people, perhaps we ought to keep in mind our limits. We can treat the trauma to their bodies. The trauma to their lives is another matter. Their pain and loss are unimaginable. Yet, despite their devastating losses, they may be more resilient than we think.

 

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