Suffering Secondary Trauma

By Christine Cupaiuolo — November 27, 2007

Over at In These Times, Silja J.A. Talvi discusses two books that consider the stress of “secondary trauma” and its effect on mental health. Such trauma may be an occupational hazard, especially for activists and journalists whose work revolves around difficult subjects, but it can affect anyone:

Regardless of profession, many of us are unwilling (or unable) to look the other way in the face of war, rampant poverty, sexual violence, mass incarceration, the preventable epidemics of infectious disease and so on. The logical outcome is that we start to suffer feelings of sadness, hopelessness or despair. To do otherwise would require a level of detachment that, in itself, might be more troubling than anything else.

Talvi references Paula Kamen’s “Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind” and clinical psychologist Bruce Levine’s new book, “Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy and Community in a World Gone Crazy.”

Talvi writes that Levine “is a longtime critic of the marketing and manipulation of mental illnesses by Big Pharma. For Levine, the extent of mental suffering in the United States is not in question. What is questionable, Levine says, is the notion that depression is disconnected from the political economy and from the meaninglessness of a self-absorbed consumer culture.”

I recently started reading “Finding Iris Chang,” and Kamen does a remarkable job of exploring the toll of Chang’s perfection-driven work ethic and deep engagement with her subject matter, which included researching and interviewing war survivors about some of the worst atrocities ever inflicted (Chang is the author of “The Rape of Nanking”). Chang killed herself in 2005 at age 36, leaving behind a husband and 2-year-old son. Talvi writes:

Chang’s level of dedication was well known. Lesser known was the degree to which her research wounded her to the core, first exacerbating what was later revealed to be a bipolar disorder that, in tandem with severe hormonal fluctuations related to infertility treatments and miscarriages, eventually spun into a paranoiac psychosis.

Kamen’s book is a multifaceted exploration of her friend’s life and death. It does more than shed light on a complex woman, activist and journalist; it also places Chang’s struggles in the context of the secondary trauma experienced by journalists, artists and activists who seek to unearth and confront ugly truths.

“To write on social justice, one must have a certain degree of sensitivity, passion and empathy to even be motivated in the first place,” Kamen says. “But then if the person is too sensitive, of course,he or she can get bogged down by the darkness of their subject matter.”

Kamen continues: “An asset and a problem with Iris Chang was that she really felt the injustice of what she was writing about, from the unrecognized victims of the Nanking Massacre to the Bataan Death March vets she interviewed in her last few years. Many others have known, of course, about these atrocities, but her inner passion helped drive her to actually do something about it, and face daunting opposition. But a problem is that because she did have too few filters, she didn’t know when to stop.”

It’s not light reading, but “Finding Iris Chang” is highly recommended. If anyone has thoughts on Levine’s book, please leave them in the comments below.

2 responses to “Suffering Secondary Trauma”

  1. As a doula, I’ve watched women verbally or physically abused while giving birth. Other birth professionals have also and coined the term “birth rape’. This is also a matter that gets very little attention but can be the root of the cause of postpartum depression for new moms.

  2. For my dissertation I interviewed over 700 poor rural households next to wildlife reserve in India. People didn’t just answer my questions, they sat me down and told me of their poverty and suffering with tears in their eyes. At the end of each day of fieldwork I would bar myself into a tiny, dark room and cry for hours. The experience was so intense it took me a year after that to slowly get over it.

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