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Soc Sci Med. 2008 Jul;67(2):218-27. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2008.03.030. Epub 2008 Apr 29.

Debating war-trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in an interdisciplinary arena.

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  • 1Anthropology, McGill University, 855 Sherbrooke Street West, Room 717, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.


Researchers have tried to determine and verify the effects of violent conflicts on the mental health of those affected by focusing on war trauma, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other trauma-related disorders. This, in turn, led to the development of different kinds of theories and aid programs that aim at preventing and treating the consequences of violence and mental health. Until now, there is no agreement on the public health value of the concept of PTSD and no agreement on the appropriate type of mental-health care. Instead, psychiatrists have engaged in sometimes fierce discussions over the universality of war trauma, PTSD, and other trauma-related disorders. The two most polar positions are those who try to validate PTSD as a universal and cross-culturally valid psychopathological response to traumatic distress which may be cured or ameliorated with (Western) clinical and psychosocial therapeutic measures, and those who argue that the Western discourse on trauma only makes sense in the context of a particular cultural and moral framework and, therefore, becomes problematic in the context of other cultural and social settings. Although these positions seem mutually exclusive, their debates have led to the development of less radical approaches toward war-trauma and PTSD. The purpose of this literature review is to analyse the discourses on and debates over war-trauma and PTSD in the psychiatric literature in order to establish a better understanding for the diverse conceptualizations, interpretations and proposed healing strategies. Moreover, I discuss the cultural construction and conceptualization of war-trauma and PTSD from an anthropological perspective and show how anthropologists contribute to psychiatric debates so as to ensure more sophisticated diagnoses and healing strategies in culturally diverse contexts.

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