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Discourses of Trauma

Discourses of Trauma

The Haiti Lab at Duke recently hosted an interdisciplinary workshop entitled "Discourses of Trauma in Haiti" that brought together specialists from various fields, such as psychiatry, anthropology and global health, to generate conversations that elucidate the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder in light of the earthquake that took place in 2010 and its aftermath.  This event focused on four specific themes: ethnopsychiatry in Haiti; "idioms of distress"; mental health programs; measures for PTSD diagnosis.  

In the roundtable discussion, Didier Fassin referred to Levi-Strauss' notion of the floating signifier for "trauma," which can be understood in a variety of ways:

1. the clinical entity of trauma

2. trauma as a subjective experience

3. the social resource surrounding trauma and the recogntion of suffering and rights

4. the woundedness resulting from collective events, e.g. slavery, or the Holocaust

5. trauma as a moral object, which brings up the legitimation of victims and the roles of witnesses and perpetrators of violence

According to Fassin, Haiti has become a symbol of the tragic, the "wretched of the Earth", to borrow Franz Fanon's words, but it can also be a place of Western redemption.

Erica Caple James followed in her discussion of the ethics in intervention and the risk of focusing too narrowly on certain aspects of suffering while neglecting others.  Within the political economy of trauma, the treatment of suffering becomes further problematized when it is commodified into what she terms "trauma portfolio," which is the capitalization of the narrative of suffering to garner resources.  This happens when trauma is legitimized by adopting the language of the diagnostic.

Marie Guerda Nicolas raised two questions: Whose story is this?  What is the story to be told?  She spoke of the necessity to create a system of Haitian nationals trained in mental health and the importance of mapping out NGO's in Haiti by the Ministry of Heatlh, such that there would be a shift for Haitians from waiting for the story to be told to telling the story themselves.  For that to be in place, there needs to be a partnership with experts on Haiti and Haiti mental health.  When the story is told from the outside, "trauma" becomes something that is "imposed" by others, creating a divide between lived experience and other's perception of such experience.

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image: Gateau affaisse by Edouard Duval-Carrie

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