Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Disaster and psychological disorders

One of  my favourite parts of studying abnormal psychology was the recognition that psychological disorders are just extremes of the norm. Diagnosis is a matter of recognising when everyday, ordinary personality and behavioural traits have become a problem. Okay, I'm oversimplifying but the point is that people who are not mentally ill have the same characteristics as those who are, just not as much. People who suffer from depression feel sad. People who don't suffer from depression also feel sad, just not as much or as debilitatingly.

Disasters, particularly but not exclusively, slow-onset disasters are the same. People in a disaster don't have enough food to eat just before the harvest. People not-in-a-disaster also don't have enough food to eat just before the harvest, just not as much or as debilitatingly. Disasters - droughts, floods, etc. - are extremes of the norm. They're conceptualised in common narrative as unexpected, horrific, once-off events, but they aren't. Dry season and rainy season are normal. Lean season and season of plenty are normal. Disasters are just more so. That's why it's so difficult to tell between chronic and acute hunger. Those who are chronically hunger and poor are more likely to face acute hunger in times of stress - such as when a rainy season is very rainy or a dry season is very dry.

If the people who are hungry in a crisis are the same people who are hungry in any ordinary lean season (just more so), then our response - outsiders, Westerners, Aid people - is illogical. We come in with immediate handouts of food aid and medicine (and sometimes token other interventions) to help "tide them over" until they can return to their "normal" lives. We act as if their normal lives are somehow markedly, substantively different from their lives in the disaster situation. Instead, their situation in a crisis as an extreme of the norm. It's a little like seeing a suicide attempt as a once-off event somehow triggered only by external stimuli, instead of a particularly bad extreme of an ongoing, chronic problem of depression.

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