The Psychology of Disasters

Under the auspices of a University College London (UCL) 2016 series of conflict resolution lectures, clinical psychologist and CEO of Psychological Systems and the IASI (Institute for Applied Social Innovation), Dr Richard Sherry shared his understanding of the psychology of disasters and conflict for vulnerable populations. To illustrate his talk he drew heavily on the case of the some 6.5M internally displaced Syrians (IDPs) mainly residing in the regions of Aleppo, Damascus and Homs, many of whom have done so since before 2000.

Two Syrian boys on the outskirts of a temporary camp. Credit: Freedom House, Flickr

Two Syrian boys on the outskirts of a temporary camp. Credit: Freedom House, Flickr

Defining this population as providing the ‘best example of psychological and mental impact of conflict on populations to date’, Sherry proceeded to outline the humanitarian vision of Psychological Systems by delineating the context, the old approach to disaster management and his propositions for shaping current and future methodology. Deserving of coverage, this research area has received renewed interest since the Millennium, not least because, as Sherry suggests, ‘90% of populations who are affected by disasters and conflict are vulnerable’.

The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction’s (UN/ISDR) definition of a disaster as a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or society, causing widespread ‘human, material, economic and/or environmental losses which exceed the ability of the affected society to cope using its own level of resources’ (2004) captures the collective fragility imposed onto the social body, and in the context of global health often takes the form of a natural catastrophe or armed conflict. By extension, ‘conflict’ can usefully be considered as in opposition to ‘co-operation’ in which a disagreement threatens the interests or priorities of any member involved in the situation.

Image Credit: A Bow-Bertrand

‘What is a disaster?’ [UN/ISDR definition]. Credit: A Bow-Bertrand

What is clear at both linguistic and practical levels is that whether a society immediately identifies as in a state of conflict or co-operation, the balance can rapidly shift from care to coercion, particularly in the case of developing world healthcare provision or areas of heavy external control and investment. The shared re-definition of leadership could change management of conflict situations worldwide inspiring further, meaningful options for the psychologically vulnerable. As in the case of the Syrian IDPs, disasters disrupt healthy, positive systems and coherent emotional experiences and cause further isolation of the already most politically marginalised members of society as evidenced in their government’s in-country censorship and oppression of the rape crisis it seemingly legimitised within the space of war.

Sherry defined a commonly held vision of the aggregated causes and issues that prompt and underpin psychological vulnerability: ‘instability, unintended consequences, vicious circles and error loops, problem of scale, non-robust solutions and redundancy, cross-domain interactions, progressive degradation of human values and quality of life’. This list is far from linear and represents overlapping concerns and exacerbation of standalone causes. Of course, theoretically speaking, prevention of conflict is far preferable to trying to reach conflict resolution, especially in circumstances where multiple causes play into the psychological vulnerability of a situation and population.

If we are to be generous, Sherry’s discussion was idealistic: to be factual, it was misguided. He seemed to overlook the entrenched and on-going nature of many conflicts, focusing less on the difficulties of socially re-integrating Syrian refugee children into post-conflict situations and more on their psychological immaturity. The mental health reality of this case is, of course, overwhelming but it is unsurprising that the risk of psychological vulnerability is greater for those who have a high perceived risk to life.

Sherry continued with a discussion of methods of psychological vulnerability management that have emerged since the Millennium. Appropriately, given his soapbox at UCL, he referred to The Sphere Project (2011) whose partners include UCL and the Wellcome Trust and judiciously remarked that its predominant focus on diagnosis and complex feedback loops are procedures that do not really address the root psychological problems or causes in the case of this Syrian population, and may actually cause dysfunctionality. It is a double-bind that many of these social systems require dysfunctionality in order to initiate change.

Credit: Sphere Project

Credit: Sphere Project

On-going, it will be most important to ensure the leadership approach adopts a positive framework that shifts and facilitates sustainable change from shame to confidence, mistrust to trust, illness to health, freezing to action, distress to joy, disconnection to connection, disenfranchisement to leadership and healing. This management will require integration, resilience, scalability, dynamic change and sustainability, areas commonly highlighted in disaster discourse of this kind, not least in the ICDS model of Psychological Systems (shown below).

IDCS model. Credit: Psychological Systems, Dr R. Sherry

ICDS model. Credit: Psychological Systems, Dr R. Sherry

Sherry’s work with IASI orientates around resistance, which has surprisingly close connections with resiliance. Indeed, their ‘Nurturing Compassion and Tenderness‘ project explores the effects of sowing and growing plants on the process of overcoming trauma. Sherry illustrated how compassion and tenderness nurtured in the process of growing plants could help communities to redevelop their self-identity through reviving basic inter-human and human-environment bonding relationships. This project aims to encourage a habit of observing firstly the ‘process’ in nature, next the effects of humans on the environment, and identification and use of appropriate resources to make optimal use of available land.

This all sounds entirely plausible and it comes as no surprise that such green fingered endeavours can be therapeutic and of particular benefit to disaster struck populations such as the Syrian IDPs. Fundamentally, this is as simple as becoming figuratively ‘grounded’, because, someone who is in trauma is ‘ungrounded’, or as Sherry suggests ‘their bodies are somatising, you need to help them find ways to be safe and sound’. Where Sherry’s project becomes uprooted is in its (in)feasibility.

Certainly, the bonding relationships it hopes to encourage between person and nature can offer transferable skills that promote social cohesion at leadership and personal levels both internally and externally, simultaneously working on an individual’s psychology and their physical environment. However, ‘Nurturing Compassion and Tenderness’ professes to be a new, instructive approach that will also teach people how to adopt and sustain a healthy lifestyle. Indeed, it is being turned into a mobile app used on the ground by people in conflict situations with the USP ‘to try and teach them how to act with compassion, both towards themselves and others’. Even verbatim, there is much to take issue with in this self-claimed new approach.

The project includes specifically devised growing manuals. Credit: IASI

The project includes specifically devised growing manuals. Credit: IASI

Primarily, the lexicon of edification is an uneasy pitch to this population, seemingly exposing itself as a Western, privileged application of a lifestyle methodology that these displaced persons have, in fact, habitually used for productivity and sustenance over many years. After all, in the case of Syria, until the late 1970s, agriculture was the primary economic activity, and its population are still widely versed in the practice of the land’s potential growth and yield cycles. Secondly, with no present in-situ déroulement of this theory in practice, one cannot help but think the recipients or proposed users of this service will bring to it some potentially productive, but currently overlooked, attitudes towards sowing and nurturing plants as one of basic life survival rather than the project’s singular vision of ‘planting as therapy’.

This project is still theoretical and is only at its initial implementation stages perhaps because the population it seeks to serve seem so little understood. Traumatised refugees could benefit from self-healing, sure, but will their primary use of a mobile device be making reference to the nurturing compassion and tenderness project app? Indeed, should its burden of data use in some areas of web connectivity be considered of sufficient value by the users? I would suggest: unlikely, and no. Moreover, Sherry’s unsettling association of his project as one of ‘reclaiming spaces’ akin to ‘guerrilla gardening’ in New York smacks of misguidance or at least oversight given his, and his organisation’s, academic; if not actual, familiarity with the people in question.

A fellow audience member questioned the project’s use of plants in camps of temporary refuge. For many potential users, and even in the Western and Anglican hegemonic traditions, planting and nurturing symbolises settlement. Surely the too-easy interchangeability of ‘sowing’ and ‘solution’ is politically charged, and too self-limiting to be a truly beneficial or sustainable tool in development leadership’s arsenal. Certainly, ‘Nurture Compassion and Tenderness’s’ aims of reducing vulnerability are commendable – but little more. They remain within this field of value judgement precisely because the population this project is designed for is hypothetical, conceptual even – an undefined ‘vulnerable population’. Implementation of the model in its current form in the Syrian temporary refuge situation would surely expose its inefficacy as a life-changing approach to managing psychological vulnerability.

Syrian refugees tae shelter at a makeshift tent camp set up for Syrian seasonal laborers in Al Qaa, Lebanon. Credit: Freedom House, Flickr

Syrian refugees take shelter at a makeshift tent camp set up for Syrian seasonal laborers in Al Qaa, Lebanon. Credit: Freedom House, Flickr

For a project so concerned with being novel, it certainly meets this demand with technological innovation, seeking to bring e-learning to the masses. Perhaps this is facetious, but to really effect change, this model must realise the beauty lies in its simplicity: encouraging self-healing through external actions that promote inner hope. A seed per person is not, in isolation, going to either prevent, nor reconcile, the aftermath of conflict. Disasters, like ecosystems are defined by multiple causes, sustaining factors and future prospects, and as such, systematic approaches must canvas multiple therapeutic responses to most fairly respond to the diverse nature of every person’s psychological health.


Image Credit: Tim Patterson, Flickr

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