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The Psychosocial Effects of Torture, Mass Human Rights Violations, and Refugee Trauma: Toward an Integrated Conceptual Framework


The Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease: April 1999 - Volume 187 - Issue 4 - p 200-207

Torture is a complex trauma that often occurs within the context of widespread persecution and human rights violations. In addition, the nature of modern warfare is such that whole populations are at risk of suffering extensive trauma, injustices, loss, and displacement. Refugees, in particular, experience sequential stresses that may compound each other over prolonged periods of time. The present overview examines whether contemporary notions of trauma, and especially a focus on the category of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are adequate in assessing the multiple effects of such experiences. Recent studies are reviewed to indicate the strengths and limitations of current research approaches. Rates of PTSD in such studies have varied with relatively low rates being found in recent epidemiologic studies undertaken on refugee populations. It is suggested that a focus on intervening psychosocial adaptive systems may assist in delineating more clearly the pathways that determine whether traumatized persons achieve psychosocial restitution or are at risk of ongoing psychiatric disability. A model is proposed which suggests that torture and related abuses may challenge five core adaptive systems subserving the functions of "safety," "attachment," "justice," "identity-role," and "existential-meaning." It is argued that a clearer delineation of such adaptive systems may provide a point of convergence that may link research endeavors more closely to the subjective experience of survivors and to the types of clinical interventions offered by trauma treatment services.

1 The Psychiatry Research & Teaching Unit, School of Psychiatry, University of New South Wales, Level 4, Health Services Building, Liverpool Hospital, Liverpool, NSW, 2170, Australia. Send reprint requests to Dr. Silove.

© 1999 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.