Is What’s Past Really Prologue?

War has so many faces and wears so many different clothes that you might be forgiven for misunderstanding its refugees. Confusing cause and effect in their behaviour, their appearance, and perhaps, most obviously, in their adaptations to the stress of upheaval and migration. There is no universal pattern that obtains, and few things to offer as a template for relief except, perhaps, a welcoming succour. And when numbers become overwhelming, even compassion is strained in the melange of personalities and temperaments that inevitably occur in those fleeing danger. Not all victims may be to our liking, and when resources become limited and privileges are necessarily constrained, the reactions can be unpredictable on both sides. Empathy can mutate into grudging tolerance. Forbearance. Endurance.

But think of the effects on the refugees, first forced to flee intolerable conditions, often leaving behind members of their families, then subject to the hardships and exploitation of the journey,  finally being forced to trust themselves to the charity of strangers. It cannot be easy for adults to have their identity subsumed by that of victim, and everything they were, everything they had, everything for which they had worked no longer possible. No longer recognized, let alone appreciated, in a strange land with often stranger customs and language.

And what must it be like for their children who haven’t yet learned the curse of humiliation, or understood what the theft of identity may mean to their parents. They’re caught in the middle ground between witness and casualty, understanding neither. Lacking the tools to navigate the waters, some, I suppose, internalize it; others lash out. But none escape entirely.

I came across an unusual manifestation of trauma that seems unique to Sweden (so far), for some reason –the newly coined Resignation Syndrome:  ‘[…] it affects only the children of asylum-seekers, who withdraw completely, ceasing to walk or talk, or open their eyes.’

‘The health professionals who treat these children agree that trauma is what has caused them to withdraw from the world. The children who are most vulnerable are those who have witnessed extreme violence – often against their parents – or whose families have fled a deeply insecure environment.’

‘As more Swedes began to worry about the consequences of immigration, these “apathetic children”, as they were known, became a huge political issue. There were reports the children were faking it, and that parents were poisoning their offspring to secure residence. None of those stories were proven.’ A not so hidden ‘blame the victim’ scenario that tends to surface under conditions of societal stress.

‘Numerous conditions resembling Resignation Syndrome have been reported before – among Nazi concentration camp inmates, for example. In the UK, a similar condition – Pervasive Refusal Syndrome – was identified in children in the early 1990s, but there have been only a tiny handful of cases, and none of them among asylum seekers. The most plausible explanation is that there are some sort of socio-cultural factors that are necessary in order for this condition to develop. A certain way of reacting or responding to traumatic events seems to be legitimised in a certain context’ writes Dr Karl Sallin, a paediatrician at the Astrid Lindgren Children’s Hospital, part of Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm.

Theories abound, of course. There is a view ‘commonly held among doctors treating children with Resignation Syndrome, that recovery depends on them feeling secure and that it is a permanent residence permit that kick-starts that process.’ Unfortunately, with increasing numbers of refugees arriving, both the patience and the available resources are wearing thin, so stricter adherence to admission criteria do not always allow a family to stay. ‘Last year, a new temporary law came into force that limits all asylum seekers’ chances of being granted permanent residence. Applicants are granted either a three-year or 13-month visa.’

One treatment seems to be having some success, even with those not granted permanent visas, however. The thesis is that  sickness has to do with former trauma, not asylum. ‘When children witness violence or threats against a parent, their most significant connection in the world is ripped apart’ –the very connection on which the child has been dependent. ‘That family connection must be re-built, but first the child must begin to recover, so Solsidan’s [the treatment center’s] first step is to separate the children from their parents. “We keep the family informed about their progress, but we don’t let them talk because the child must depend on our staff. Once we have separated the child, it takes only a few days, until we see the first signs that, yes, she’s still there…” says Annica Carlshamre, a senior social worker for Gryning Health, a company that runs Solsidan, a home for all kinds of troubled children.

Even if effective, I would imagine that not every family would be willing to part with their child to strangers, nor would the number of treatment centers be equal to the task. Still, it may be a method worth exploring further.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Resignation Syndrome, Situational Adjustment Reactions, Panic Attacks… I am not alone in wondering what these may produce in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, affected –either in childhood when coping mechanisms may not yet have been learned, or worse perhaps, in adulthood when the mechanisms may have been discarded. What can we expect from a generation torn from its customs, and rightful expectations of a peaceful family life? A generation often deprived of education, to say nothing of safety? What is normal to those who have never experienced it? And what are the obligations of the rest of us to them?

War, it is said, will be with us always, but we must not be fooled by its seeming inevitability. I suppose it is unbecomingly naïve in this time of terrorism and bellicose patriotism, but I still remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? It’s not an answer, perhaps -just a hope…


Gender and Stress

Even the most ardent proponents of gender parity will admit that equality of opportunity does not imply equality of physiology. ‘The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal,’ as Aristotle said. Homogeneous –likeness, if you will- is not necessarily homogenous (a biological term meaning structurally similar due to common ancestry). Admittedly a semantically fraught distinction, it nonetheless suggests that there may well be differences that do not transcend gender.

For example, there seems to be a sexual discrepancy in the acquisition of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) -women tend to be more vulnerable to its development than men. A research team from Stanford University published a study in Depression and Anxiety (the official journal of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America) and it suggests that ‘[…] girls who develop PTSD may actually be suffering from a faster than normal ageing of one part of the insula – an area of the brain which processes feelings and pain. […]the insula, was found to be particularly small in girls who had suffered trauma. But in traumatized boys, the insula was larger than usual. This could explain why girls are more likely than boys to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the researchers said. The insula, or insular cortex, is a diverse and complex area, located deep within the brain which has many connections. As well as processing emotions, it plays an important role in detecting cues from other parts of the body. […]This shows that the insula is changed by exposure to acute or long-term stress and plays a key role in the development of PTSD.’ And as I quoted, the changes seem to be different in the two sexes.

The point of all this somewhat detailed background, is to submit that, as the study suggests, ‘it is possible that boys and girls could exhibit different trauma symptoms and that they might benefit from different approaches to treatment.’ Perhaps a sensitive counsellor would recognize this as the sessions continued, but it’s helpful to have some corroboratory evidence to justify any proposed changes.

I have to say that I was woefully ignorant of any sex difference in the development of PTSD. I’m embarrassed to admit that, if anything, I thought of it as largely a male condition –perhaps because of its association with war, and combat -traditionally at least, arenas of male predominance. But of course that is naïve. PTSD is not something confined to combat; it can be equally prevalent in other situations of distress or upheaval. Trauma is trauma, and long term issues can result from such things as natural disasters, car crashes, and certainly sexual or physical assaults, to name only a few. Because the symptoms can be confusing or even disguised, the diagnosis is best left to qualified practitioners, and yet I can’t help but wonder if a greater and more sensitive awareness of the possibility of the condition might encourage more sufferers to seek professional help.

As a gynaecologist, I feel uncomfortable and indeed far out of my depth in discussing most issues pertaining to PTSD, and yet thinking back over my years in practice, it seems to me that I may have suspected something of the sort, but lacked both the vocabulary and training to assign it a label –especially in those women I saw for conditions they suspected may have been attributable to previous sexual abuse: fears that they occasionally admitted to re-experiencing in unrelated events; things about which they still had nightmares; situations that led to unprovoked irritability and anger.

PTSD, by whatever name, has no doubt afflicted humans from time immemorial. Male hubris dictated that it be disguised or denied no doubt –it was a sign of weakness- and therefore unlikely to be mentioned in contemporary accounts. But signs of its presence occasionally snuck into mainstream literature -Shakespeare’s Henry IV being a likely candidate, for example. Perhaps more germane to my specialty, however, was the recognition of the lasting effects of trauma on people other than those involved in traditional conflict: women. The US Department of Veteran’s Affairs in its National Center for PTSD pamphlet states: ‘Most early information on trauma and PTSD came from studies of male Veterans, mostly Vietnam Veterans. Researchers began to study the effects of sexual assault and found that women’s reactions were similar to male combat Veterans. Women’s experiences of trauma can also cause PTSD.’ In fact they maintain that ‘The most common trauma for women is sexual assault or child sexual abuse.’

For too long have the lasting effects of sexual assault been ignored, or at best, trivialized and examined through male eyes in a still-male world. I don’t mean to sound like an overzealous feminist who pins all problems on male dominance, but I think age and a career spent in women’s health grants me a unique –if still masculine- perspective. As with all things, specialists run the risk of deconstruction, overanalyzing the events often with the consequent subversion of their apparent significance -almost a form of historical revisionism, an unintentionally biased and often contextually barren interpretation. One bridge, when crossed by a thousand people, becomes a thousand bridges –we all see the world through our own experiences, our own expectations, our own prejudices.

I think the fact that we can now demonstrate that there are valid reasons to question those often unconscious assumptions is a cause for hope. Much as we have finally realized that the results of many studies carried out only using men cannot necessarily be mindlessly extrapolated to women, so it is becoming increasingly apparent that trauma and its effects may also be non-generalizable. Although not its prisoners, we are after all, creatures of a chromosomal lottery, divergent physiologies, and certainly of different past experiences, so why wouldn’t there be a spectrum of responses to stress?

So, is there a ‘man-cold’? Well, maybe… I know that’s the kind I get, anyway.












Folk wisdom sometimes gets it right: there is a man-cold… Well, maybe.