Tainted blood to tainted trauma?

September 29, 1998


I hesitate to do something when everybody seems to be doing it. And lately, it seems, everybody is bashing the Red Cross. But, in this case, I can't help joining in because the Red Cross and the public should know about the risk of tainted trauma.

As the Red Cross gets out of the blood collection business, it is shifting its resources toward another potentially contaminating activity, psychological work with trauma victims. Red Cross supporters might claim the organization is well-prepared for this new venture, since it can boast a long history of working with trauma victims, from the battlefields of the First World War to the Bosnian refugee camps.

But our image of these workers is of kind souls handing out food and blankets, making sure orphaned children are safe and providing medicine for the sick. It is not of counsellors helping people heal their emotional wounds.

This, however, is what the Red Cross is getting itself into, perhaps in an effort to prop up a sagging self-image. Elizabeth Dole, president of the American Red Cross, recently said that "families devastated by disaster need immediate assistance to help them cope with the stress, shock, fear and other responses they may have."

What form might this help take? Well, consider how during the terrible floods in the Saguenay/Lac-Saint-Jean Region of Quebec in 1996, Red Cross workers handed out coupons that entitled the holders to up to $1,000 worth of free counselling. And last year, the big drug company, Eli Lilly, gave the American Red Cross $1 million to train disaster mental health professionals. The drug company's grant is to be used "to substantially increase the program's ability to help meet the rapidly expanding needs of disaster victims and relief workers."

Wait a minute. Disasters aren't increasing. Floods, fires and wars have happened throughout human history. What is expanding is not the devastation, but the Red Cross's definition of its services. In short, it needs something to do to replace its lost blood-collection business.

Curiously, the Red Cross's Mental Health Services program began in 1992, just about the time that the tainted blood scare broke out. Not surprisingly, this program is supported by mental health professions who, while promoting the Good Samaritan image, acknowledge that it is good for business. The American Psychological Association got into the act, lobbying governments for disaster-relief plans and funding, stating that disaster victims need "more long-term care."

But what do these trauma counsellors actually do? One psychologist, quite aptly, called her work "coffee-cup therapy," adding that she and others "simply talk to survivors as they go about their business." Another called it "stealth psychology" because psychologists doing this work make a point of not identifying themselves as mental health professionals.

Of course, the official statements offer a different view: Trauma counsellors provide short-term crisis intervention, helping people to "grow healthy" and to avoid "a full fledged post-traumatic stress disorder."

For some, this counselling may be neither harmful nor helpful. As one farmer I know of put it, talking to nice people might help relieve boredom when there is nothing else to be done. But when the disaster is over and there was something to do, it's time to get back to work -- and get on with life.

However, not everyone gets on with life after receiving trauma counselling. These good-intentioned counsellors may, in fact, be doing more harm than good. A woman who endured the Oklahoma City bombing a few years ago said recently: "We just start to get over it, and then they (the counsellors) want us to talk about it again. It's like pulling the scab off before it heals."

A priest in a Quebec village near the site of the tragic bus crash that killed 43 senior citizens was perplexed at the sudden influx of strangers offering everything from advice to insurance to grief counselling. Calling them "vultures," he asked that they leave his parishioners in peace.

While trauma counselling may sound wholesome and benevolent, most people are probably better off finding their own ways of coping, be it prayer, love of family or a strong-willed refusal to be a victim. In fact, it's quite likely that some of the very people these counsellors are trying to help actually learn to view themselves as long-term victims of psychological trauma.

But now, with the Red Cross getting into the trauma counselling business, the organization may once again be doing harm. While tainted blood may be the unwanted legacy of previous ventures, "tainted trauma" may be the next scandal to be exposed.


@ Dr.Tana Dineen

by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist,