The emergence of "trauma counselors'
By Stephanie Salter
Tuesday, March 31, 1998
THE TERM is now such an essential of any story like the Jonesboro, Ark., shootings, you probably don't even notice it. A tragedy occurs in a school, church or workplace anywhere in the United States, and who comes right behind the police, paramedics, rescue workers and news media?
Do you ever wonder when we began to accept as fact that we can't cope with death or violence without the services of a therapist? Or why we decided that a stranger with a graduate degree in psychology is better equipped than anyone else we know to help us "properly" deal with and "heal" from a shocking or violent incident?
"Instead of talking about "tragedy,' we now talk about "trauma,' " said former psychotherapist Tana Dineen. "We psychologize things and turn normal human reactions into pathology. This is exactly what my industry wants."
A licensed psychologist in Canada, Dineen abandoned her 30-year research and therapy career in 1993 because she felt psychology had become "neither a science nor a profession but rather an industry focused on self-interest and propelled by financial incentives."
Last year, she wrote what may be the most sweeping indictment ever penned about her field: "Manufacturing Victims: What the Psychology Industry Is Doing to People" (Robert Davies Publishing).
In the introduction Dineen says she had "noted, with increasing distress, a shift within psychology from questions to answers, from curiosity to certainty, from modesty to pretentiousness." The shift appalled her and drove her out.
Now in its second printing, the updated "Manufacturing Victims" includes a section about the growing phenomenon of trauma counseling -- for Dineen, another variation on a pernicious theme.
"It is infantilizing all of us," she said from her home in Victoria, B.C. "Under the guise of science, it pretends there are typical ways that people react to tragic or violent situations and some formula or standard for handling them. The message is: If you don't deal with this the "right' way, you will get sick from it."
Like grief counseling, said Dineen, trauma counseling treats as indisputable gospel that it is better and healthier to talk about one's pain than not.
"But we're individuals," she said. "Some of us never feel comfortable "letting it all out.' Some of us don't want to talk. We might prefer to go to church or, if we need to talk, talk to a minister or a friend or compassionate relative."
As a black-humor illustration of her point, Dineen told of a man she knew whose wife had died. His aunt phoned him to offer comfort and a sympathetic ear. The man said he'd like to talk with his aunt but he didn't have time -- the grief counselor was coming over.
"There is nothing I know of in the (scientific) research literature that supports the idea that we have a stereotypical way of reacting," said Dineen. "This (counseling) is basically giving people a script: You may have nightmares; you might not do as well in school. And it promotes the idea that the people who witness a tragedy like the one in Arkansas are the victims rather than the people who got shot."
Worse, said Dineen, research literature can't tell us that such counseling won't actually harm us.
In compiling her book, Dineen studied and interviewed scores of victims of ghastly crimes, from Holocaust survivors to South American torture victims to a woman who was kidnapped, hog-tied for nine days and repeatedly raped.
"If you look at people who have been through horrendous things, by and large, they get over it," said Dineen. "It may be awful for a long time. Some people may stay upset forever, but not a lot. The idea that we are a species that is pretty resilient seems to have been forgotten."
Replacing that idea, she said, is "the psychology industry's view that everyone needs help whether they know it or not."
Stephanie Salter is an Examiner columnist.
©1998 San Francisco Examiner