The Politics of Return workshop

Report on contemporary and historical trauma in post-conflict places

We expected that these people who had been reintegrated 10 years ago would be doing really well and coping well with their families, but it wasn’t the case... We found surprising things that were happening in their lives and their children’s lives that were really causing a lot of trauma.


POR workshop LSE-1
A group of academics and researchers gathered at the LSE on 14 September 2019 for a workshop on post-conflict trauma. Image Credit: Kara Blackmore


On the 14 September 2019, a group of academics and researchers met at the London School of Economics and Political Science to discuss contemporary and historical trauma narratives in post-conflict places. The seminar marked the close of a 3-year AHRC-funded grant The Politics of Return (PoR), led by PI Tim Allen. The work of the PoR research cluster explores processes and dynamics of return and reintegration in central and eastern Africa (Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and South Sudan). 

The workshop comprised of two sessions:

1. The morning session examined the post-conflict context of northern Uganda, exploring trauma narratives from individuals formerly abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), recounting their attempts to reintegrate into society.

2. The second session expanded this geographical conversation to new disciplinary horizons. Discussions focused on historical conceptions of trauma in early modern Europe and evaluated developments in cross-cultural psychiatry and mental health.

Session one: Trauma narratives and healing approaches in post-conflict northern Uganda

This session started with a brief explanation of the context, describing the conflict that occurred in northern Uganda from the mid 1980s until the mid 2000s. In 1986, Yoweri Museveni and the National Resistance Army (NRA) overthrew President Tito Okello. The latter came from the Acholi region of northern Uganda, and NRA battalions were immediately sent there to quash  armed opposition in that part of the country. One rebel group proved very difficult to defeat, and remained active in the region until the mid 2000s. This was the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony.

Joseph Kony was claimed by many, particularly in the media, to be ‘mad’. This was because he was (and perhaps still is) a spirit medium, and was guided and advised by metaphysical forces. Amongst other things, he claimed that he was acting according to a particular interpretation of the Ten Commandments. The methods of the LRA were violent and brutal. Joseph Kony relied on the forced recruitment of young men, women and children to fill the ranks of his army. The LRA largely committed atrocities within the Acholi region and neighbouring areas. Perhaps in excess of 30,000 children were abducted. Professor Tim Allen, who chaired the event, has conducted research in Uganda for over 30 years. He explained that, ‘A key point is that the violence was quite contained in a region of the country, and this horrific violence was being perpetrated mainly by Acholi people on themselves.’

Joseph Kony’s violence against Acholi people was based on the idea that if you were not with the LRA, then you supported the government. Attacks would take place on civilians and villages to prove that the government was unable to protect its citizens. Along with this, Joseph Kony had a strategy of making abductees commit atrocities in communities where they were known, killing school friends or even their parents and other close relatives. This made the prospect of returning to their home villages more difficult. Professor Allen describes the circumstances of these returnees, ‘Many of these people are coming back to live with families that were at the receiving end of that LRA violence for which these people [returnees] are in some ways held accountable for, or forgiven, or accepted as loved ones, or rejected.’

As a response to the conflict, the government in Kampala created multiple camps for internally displaced peoples (IDPs) where some returnees transitioned to and where humanitarian aid was delivered. Around 90% of the population in the region was displaced into these camps by the early 2000s and the war gradually came to an end around 2006. After the peace talks, the camps were largely disbanded and most people were resettled back to their original villages where it was hoped that they would rebuild their lives. However, this proved to be difficult for many reasons including issues of trauma that persisted within individuals who were part of or affected by the LRA.

Trauma and its manifestations amongst women and children returning from the Lord's Resistance Army

Ugandan researchers Jacky Atingo, Dorothy Atim and James Ocitti presented narratives of post-conflict trauma from northern Ugandan context. Their findings were based on experience working within reception centres managed by organizations including World Vision, Save the Children, and UNICEF. Reception centres focused on: providing rehabilitation, psychosocial counseling, vocational skills development, family tracing and reintegration programmes. Despite the efforts of these international organizations, many of the individuals who were received by the centres experienced trauma and faced challenges in their reentry. Atingo explains what she expected when she started documenting the experiences of women in 2013,

'We expected that these people who had been reintegrated 10 years ago would be doing really well and coping well with their families, but it wasn’t the case...We found surprising things that were happening in their lives and their children’s lives that were really causing a lot of trauma.'

Sitting on a panel, the three researchers recounted the stories of Ugandan women who had been abducted as young girls and also the children of these women. Of the people abducted by the LRA, many of them were girls aged 8–15 who were then given to LRA commanders as wives. Atingo discussed how women returning home after being abducted by the LRA experienced ajiji. She explained that, ‘trauma in Acholi is called ajiji. Ajiji in Acholi is something that reawakens something that has happened in the past that makes it so you don’t feel comfortable.’

She went on to describe this reawakening as something negative based on a terrible event that occurred in the past. This event would manifest itself in multiple ways within the formally abducted women. One way in which it manifested itself was through nightmares. The women would have nightmares of past killings, experiences of sexual violence, or other events that caused them bodily or psychological harm while with the LRA. She described how some women would wake up screaming in fear that someone was going to kill them.

Along with nightmares, some women were often triggered by everyday events, causing them to experience extreme emotions of fear and anger. An aeroplane flying overhead could trigger memories of government bombings during the war for some people. Others experienced extreme moments of anger. One formally abducted woman beat her child to death for breaking a padlock on her front door. Other women were said to be unable to engage in consensual sex with potential partners as it reminded them of their experiences of rape while with the LRA. These events are profound demonstrations of the resonance of trauma in women’s lives.

Abductees’ children experienced challenges. Atingo discussed problems with children’s ‘aggression’. Others struggled to concentrate in school. Atim shared one narrative about a boy who killed his schoolmate because he referred to him as having a ‘bush mentality'. The phrase ‘bush mentality’ was used by people to describe a mind-set that was from the ‘bush’, a temporal and geographic signature to LRA camps.

Along with feeling isolated or stigmatised by their peers, some of the children lacked strong family structures or were rejected by their families. Atingo recounted how some children were rejected by their mothers who viewed them as a burden or blamed them for the violence they experienced in the LRA camps. Additionally, Ocitti talked about how many of the children of abductees, who were accepted during their initial reunion with their families, now as adults are facing rejection. For some their close family relations are old or have died and they are left feeling as if they have no place.

Ocitti went on to describe how culturally, Acholi children typically connect to their paternal side, living out their daily lives with their father’s family. As most of the children in the re-entry camps did not know their fathers, and their mothers did not want to associate with their father’s history as LRA members, there is a confusion of identity that they experience. Ocitti asserts,

'They are also facing a lot of stigma, still related to their home set up…At the end of the day you find all these children who came from the bush are staying in isolation. They think they don’t have a place because many of them do not know where their fathers come from. Their mothers also do not want them to associate with their father as well…They don’t know what to do and it’s giving them a hard time…There is an issue of identity…I think the mothers…they don’t want to associate with the formal relationship they had in the bush and at the end of the day they have continued to deny their children their paternal name. This has brought a little bit of conflict. The children have gone on saying, “We are feeling rejected! We want to know where our father comes from!”'

As a result of this confusion, some of the children end up leaving their maternal homes and living on their own. Atingo described how even as they lived on their own they still had a feeling of loss. ‘They are asking themselves where is the place I call home. And these are all things that are traumatising them.’

Each of the three Ugandan researchers emphasized different narratives of trauma and the overall challenges that returnees and their children faced. However, some formally abducted individuals reintegrated more successfully than others. Many factors played a role in this divide. One factor had to do with whether the individual had gone through homecoming rituals. ‘These rituals were performed in…Acholi tradition. When you [have] stayed away for a long time, as a part of healing, they will let you go through these rituals of cleansing to accept you home as a way of reintegration.’

It was believed that if you did not go through the traditional rituals, then you would experience cen. Cen is an Acholi word that means a person is affected or possessed by vengeful or evil spirits, especially those spirits who have died unjustly.

'Currently [cen] is linked to the formally abducted people, but before cen wouldaffect you if you had killed and you did not confess to people that “I did it.” They believe that the spirit follows you…demanding for you to confess. That is why they at times perform the rituals so that you can accept generally that “I have killed” making you accountable for what you’ve done. But they say if you don’t account for it, the spirit keeps on haunting you.'

There were multiple traditional rituals that were done to combat cen, and it was shown that individuals that went through these rituals were experiencing a more successful reintegration than those that did not.

Another factor that may have influenced whether an individual reintegrated successfully was if they had access or exposure to resources. Atim claims that,

'Exposure has also contributed to making some more successful than others. Because when you look at the women in the town, in the more urban areas they are more exposed to resources and they are doing very well. But when you continue to the village, they’re so miserable. They don’t know which organization to go to or who can support them.'

Access to material resources often meant being exposed to international organizations that were providing support. Atim explained that some individuals did not wish to access the resources as they wanted to forget their experience with the LRA altogether, or they wanted to avoid the stigma that came with being associated with former LRA wives.

All three researchers provided evidence to show that the long and violent conflict has frayed the social fabric of many communities. However, they also provide accounts of some women and children who returned to families that supported them in their transition and characterized these narratives as success stories. Despite this, questions still persist as to what interventions need to be put in place to encourage healing in these communities moving forward.

Healing interventions in post-conflict northern Uganda

Following this panel discussion that presented narratives of trauma in northern Uganda, was a presentation by researcher Constanza Torre, who complicated the conversation by challenging the promotion of trauma in post-conflict health interventions. Her research, conducted with Sophie Mylan, Professor Melissa Parker, and Professor Tim Allen, analyzed the social impact of mental health interventions addressing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the implications of utilizing Euro-American trauma discourses in northern Uganda. This presentation was framed in response to the rise of the field of global mental health in the last decade and specifically to a recent publication in a well-known medical journal, the Lancet. This publication by Charlson et al, presents a systematic review and meta-analysis of mental disorder estimates in conflict settings, providing new data that is likely to inform international policy and health interventions across the globe. Torre discussed the field of global mental health,

'This field is based on a couple of different pillars. Some of the main ones being the heavy reliance on Western psychiatric categories and the promotion of scaling up of mental health interventions. In the global South there are interventions that are designed in the West with the research [that] has been done mostly in Western institutions…For a long time anthropologists have spoken up against the universality of mental disorders. Anthropologists have argued that Western psychiatric categories may not reflect the lived realities globally and may be products of Western philosophical and cultural assumptions, which are not necessarily universally applicable.'

Torre touches on each of the ‘pillars’ of global mental health that she mentions, insisting that the Western diagnosis of PTSD has socially impacted the northern Ugandan context and that promoting trauma overall has had considerable socio-economic ramifications on returnees and the wider society.

She first problematises the use of PTSD cross-culturally emphasizing that it comes from a specific cultural and moral framework and that its use often leads to ‘the medicalisation and professionalisation of suffering.’ Its usage can reframe suffering as a technical problem to which short term interventions like counselling are the solution when the root of the issue is much deeper. She argues that this is the case in northern Uganda where a common narrative has described large amounts of the population as being collectively traumatized, both during and after the conflict, using a Euro-American idea of a ‘traumatized individual.’ This, she says, dictates what type of treatment is promoted in the region, which is often insufficient in addressing the needs of the returnees.

Along with this, Torre describes how there are specific socio-economic ramifications to the use of these trauma narratives. She argues that they create a type of currency in the northern Ugandan context.

'What we suggest are narratives of victimhood have become a form of currency in at least two different ways. On the one hand they are a form of currency for the humanitarian actors, as in they are appropriated and marketed by NGOs as a justification for their operations. And they are equally mobilized in different ways by people to access a number of benefits that come with exposure to humanitarian actors...'

In her presentation she highlights how these resources were inequitably distributed amongst returnees and often reinforced social hierarchies that had existed within the LRA. For example, those women who achieved common positions of senior wives were able to strategically adopt preferred modes of describing their experiences, which helped them secure better livelihoods. Torre explains,

'What we’ve found out is that this [currency] has created visible social hierarchies that have serious impacts on people’s lives and communities. The possibility of receiving support heavily depends on individual people being able to fit their personal narrative in conceptions that are backed by donors…, which means that those who can capitalize on their own narratives of suffering, which are sometimes moulded with the histories of others... gain access to benefits and social leverage. However, not everyone is able to mobilise and use their story in that particular way.'

While some are able to use their narratives of trauma, others remain silent, unable or unwilling to share their stories with others. Those with less sensational accounts of their experiences do not get access to resources, but the research shows that they are also experiencing stigmatization, social isolation, and cen. Resources like school fees and work opportunities are only offered to a select few who are able to mould their stories in a way that fits within Euro-American conceptions of trauma.

Torre acknowledged the opposing argument coming from psychiatrists who stated that the debate of whether these concepts and psychological categories can be applied cross-culturally is stopping the action that needs to be taken to support those suffering from mental health issues. However, she makes two overarching claims. First that the current ‘best practices’ do not adequately engage with the anthropological critiques that have challenged their assumptions, especially the assumption that psychological categories can be applied cross-culturally. Second, she argues that advocates for scaling mental health interventions should operate with extreme caution as these interventions can greatly impact the social fabric of post-conflict contexts, especially if they are not based on the lived realities and livelihoods of the people they seek to help. 


Researchers James Ocitti, Dorothy Atim, and Jacky Atingo sit in a panel discussing trauma narratives in northern Uganda. Image Credit: Kara Blackmore

Session two: Historical patterns, change and continuity in narratives of trauma and approaches to healing

Early Modern Trauma

Session two of the workshop expanded the conversation to look at the history of trauma more broadly. To start the session off, Dr Erin Peters gave a talk about early modern trauma. Peters discusses her work in deciphering narratives of experiences of trauma from the early modern period through archival research. She asserts that trauma theory can be adapted to suit a 17th century context and then used as an analytical lens to study human responses to extreme events. Those who explore psychological trauma often view it as a phenomenon that is firmly and uniquely placed in the modern era, discounting what she calls the ‘cross-chronological validities of trauma’. Despite the fact that psychological trauma developed as a concept in the 19th century, Peters argues that:

'Psychological trauma as a result of distressing experiences is a human response. And evidence of this phenomenon can be found across times and cultures that pre-date our modern world. So what we need to do is expand the lens for which we look for this evidence.'

In looking at the context of Europe, Peters cites the time period that some historians call ‘the General Crisis,’ which took place in the 16th- 17th century, as being a time period where the concept of trauma can be seen as relevant. This is because this was a time period characterized by its widespread conflict and instability. Peters underscores that the purpose is not to look in the past and diagnose individuals with trauma, but that it is to find evidence of trauma across time periods and cultural lenses to further understand what constitutes trauma. This evidence must consider the cultural context of the time period, as trauma may be looked at through different frameworks using different language to describe its existence. This leaves room for several questions as Peters states:

'For these findings to be relevant today, beyond the contribution this research can make to the study of early modern history, we need to consider what we can learn from studying this evidence of this innate human response to suffering…In other words what are the long-term effects of cultural trauma? Can these [effects] be traced historically in the specific cultures in which they can be found? Can it be done so much that they can be connected to the present even over such a long period and teach us how to recognize and address cultural trauma in present day post-conflict societies? And can it give us a platform upon which we can begin to offer predictions about long term impacts of cultural trauma in these specific places?'

While looking at accounts of the British civil wars she was able to find moments where individuals were more emotive than what was the norm in the time period. Published combat discourses in the mid 17th century typically took on a language of historical fact or they used a ‘heroic stoicism’ in their descriptions. Narratives moving beyond these dominant discourses were rare and she argued were adding to narratives of trauma in the time period. Peters comments that:

'The experiences of the civil wars were so intense that despite these dominant discourses, the horrors of the battlefield and its impact on civilians did find its way into print. And there were indeed several print sources that became bestsellers and were subject to several reprints. And this begins to contribute to a trauma story.'

Many of these publications were popularised in the Restoration period following the civil wars, and in looking at these post-conflict narratives of cultural trauma, Peters identifies specific features within the texts. Peters finds that descriptions tend to revolve around categories of ‘excessive confusion’, ‘debilitating grief’, or ‘extreme fear’. It is then acknowledged that these features were rarely discussed in publicly available print, especially in relation to actual lived experiences, so to see them as popular narratives points to the larger existence of a collective cultural trauma in the context of the 17th century. This is because the text recognizes the debilitating nature of invisible wounds and it demonstrates the awareness that the mind can be damaged by events that are external to the body. Peters highlights that this is a real shift in thinking in the early modern medical perspective.

Peters was also able to find narratives of therapeutical practices in treating ailments of the mind that are ‘remarkably similar’ to contemporary modes of therapy. There are popular texts from the 17th century that encourage individuals suffering from a ‘distressed mind’ to talk about their experiences in order to ‘reinstate the rule of reason’. The purpose of using testimonial accounts as a form of treatment was to restore meaning and logic to events that seemed to go beyond understanding. The belief demonstrated in these texts was that the simple narration of events could ease the ‘distressed mind’.

Finding these narratives in 17th century texts demonstrated that early modern people were aware that external factors could cause significant mental and emotional disorders that were treatable in ways similar to contemporary practices. By her research Peters argues that the print material can be seen as a cultural attempt to communicate a collective trauma. She also notes that there was an increased censorship and government control of print materials and the press at the time, which shows that these popular texts containing post-conflict trauma narratives were allowed or even encouraged by the state, perhaps as a strategic way to address national trauma or to serve as warnings to the nation at other points of crisis that followed the civil wars.

Overall this research helps us to see trauma in a context that is beyond those that place the origins of trauma in modern times. Peters shows us that examining trauma narratives in the early modern time period can help us to move beyond the limits of the modern historical context to further acknowledge and complicate understandings of the innate human response to pain and conflict. It can serve as a tool to help us understand the questions of what counts as trauma, for whom, and under what circumstances, expanding the frameworks that we use to understand trauma in present day.

Developing cross-cultural models of the mind

Continuing session two of the workshop, Dr. Ana Antic added to the conversation by looking at the history of the development of the field of transcultural psychiatry, which aimed to understand the cultural context of mental disorders. In exploring the global history of modern psychiatry in the second half of the twentieth century, after World War II and during decolonisation, Antic explains that there was an attempt to develop the concept of the ‘global psyche’. This concept aimed at embracing a universal humanity in the aftermath of the extreme violence and destruction of World War II. Antic states,

This push for universality in the mid-twentieth century, in many ways is a progressive international development. It comes in the face of some very powerful currents in colonial psychiatry which did not see universals. They did not believe in the common universal humanity, but actually ordered minds racially and culturally in strict hierarchical order. Saying that there is no major difference between African and European minds in the 1950s was in many ways a progressive kind of anti-colonial, perhaps political statement.

With this movement of transcultural psychiatry in the second half of the twentieth century, Antic discussed how on one hand Western psychiatrists were openly and explicitly attempting to be anti-colonial and anti-racist by developing universal understandings of psychiatry and by questioning their own frameworks. On the other hand, despite this attempt, they were simultaneously reinforcing some of the Eurocentric classifications and treatment systems, ignoring the nuances of local, cultural, social, and economic contexts, and repeating important tropes from colonial psychiatry.

Antic’s research is based on the most important global psychiatric examination in history, The International Pilot Study of Schizophrenia (IPSS), which attempted to establish whether schizophrenia was a universal psychiatric category. This pilot study was based in 9 research centres around the world and ultimately did prove that schizophrenia was universal in its own terms. However at the same time it reinforced problematic ideologies of the mind being less developed in the non-Western regions of the world where the study took place. It used evolutionary tropes to assume that the mind in the former colonies were ‘simpler’ than that of the minds in the West.

Understanding the history and contradictions of the field of transcultural psychiatry in the mid-twentieth century inspires larger conversations around what is cultural difference in mental health. There is an attempt in the field to avoid reductive cultural explanations that further characterize non-Western cultures as exotic. There is also the need to not allow cultural specificity to overshadow the universal core of mental illness, and yet questions remain as to whether Western diagnostic categories can be ‘culture-free’ entities. Is PTSD, depression, and anxiety ‘culture-free’ and universal? How do we address the problems of universalism when engaging with cross-cultural contexts? Antic stressed that these are questions that need further exploration.

Concluding Comments and Observations

The workshop concluded with comments by Professor Daniel Pick who started by emphasizing how essential it is to be vigilant about the categories that we use in mental health, especially since some of them come from problematic histories. There is a need to be cautious both about tendencies to universalize categories of mental health and, conversely to de-universalize them to the point where we assume no common elements, no shared factors, at all. The question then is, what is it to be human, and how much of that human condition is entirely contingent on a particular context?  The use of a term such as ‘trauma’ raises this question: we might well want to assume that in all conditions, there can be certain psycho-social experiences, for people, that are ‘traumatic’, even as we recognise the vexed nature of that category.  He went on to ask the question of whether we can retrieve something useful from this and other psychological categories despite their problematic histories. For example, could there be a value to using such a term to describe the nature of experiences in the context of northern Uganda and to use the very same category, as we heard earlier today, in looking at human suffering during the 17th century in England. He raised these points in relation to earlier sessions and framed them as relevant ongoing debates that can occur when discussing the use of medical psychiatric categories.

Pick pondered the various meanings of trauma, and its connotations – i.e. what happens when there is a break-down of the mind or of the social fabric that holds things together. He also underlined earlier material from the day, in which the psychological break-down of a person was linked not only to a violation suffered, but also a requirement to become an active agent in violating or destroying other people. Pick remarked:

'The idea of trauma, when you look at the original sense of it, is the rupture of a membrane, first of all in the body, but then it’s reapplied to the mind…Then there is the idea we heard about earlier today of forcing people into acts that violate others. There is the violation of the body...but there’s also the violation of codes, of taboos, of kinship and social networks. We were invited to think about what then comes, psychically and socially in the aftermath of that collective experience? That seems to be a very important aspect of what we were discussing today.'

He related this theme to the first session, which discussed the atrocities of the LRA and how an initiation to the LRA depended upon participation, the abducted people were often required to kill people in their former communities. In this example, the killing was not the only violation, the violation was in the killing of someone with whom there was previous contact and knowledge. In the earlier presentation on ‘trauma’ and the civil war in England in the seventeenth century there was also the particular quality of psychic disturbance linked to the killing of compatriots, people who could not easily be treated as some alien other, people who often shared similar values and personal histories, but happened to be on the opposite side of the battlefield. This violation of a social taboo, Pick points out, remained part of the wound, part of the legacy, part of what haunted individuals or perhaps society more generally. This raised the question of how this sense of haunting aftermath can be understood in relation to, or as part of the enduring trauma.

Pick raised further questions about the ways in which later traumas, for instance, for adults may reignite earlier disturbances, or traumas, earlier in a person’s life. He mentioned the Freudian idea of ‘afterwardness’ or ‘après coup’, where experiences later on may reignite, or reinvest and stir up memories or meanings from earlier on.

Finally he pondered the way in which ideas about ‘captive mind’, or ‘brainwashed minds’ might presuppose a model, or even a theory about healthy mind, or perhaps free mind, that is not possessed in the same way by another. He framed this conversation around the concept of brainwashing, and made some links to the earlier discussion of trauma. Professor Tim Allen intervened here and explained why the concept of brainwashing might indeed be relevant to the context of northern Uganda and the LRA.

'This is very relevant for this particular case. The story about these people coming back from the LRA, most of them anyway, is that they are innocent as they were brainwashed into doing terrible things…and they’re not accountable. It's the promotion of the idea of forgiveness and reconciliation rather than accountability. It also raises the issue about to what extent were people brainwashed. Was it actually the case that they didn’t have any accountability or had no choice?'

Pick noted how brainwashing was an idea that first emerged during the 1950s, i.e. during the Cold War. He took a moment to sketch a historical context and to analyse what brainwashing signified and where the term came from:

'Brainwashing, first of all, when it’s used in the West, it’s to describe the Maoist Chinese…or what Mao is doing to his people and also to Western prisoners. There’s this washing of the brain that’s actually very sinister. It’s not cathartic. It’s not cleansing the mind in any way. It’s taking over the mind. It’s erasing. It’s traumatically destroying what is there and then implanting into the mind something else, taking somebody over. And is that term an accurate new description, or is it something that in other cultures might be called something else like possession, indoctrination, suggestion, mesmerism or magnetism. Or was it creating, in a very ideologically loaded way, at the beginning of the Cold War, a kind of assumption about what it is to have a non-brainwashed mind. A kind of free mind that is the very antithesis of this sinister, nefarious, Maoist, totalitarian mind?'

In this quotation Pick was opening up the conversation to discuss various assumptions or even models of a free as opposed to a brainwashed mind and to invite discussion about how this concept was influenced by, even as it may have influenced political realities of the Cold War period. He noted how we needed to consider both psychology and history, and the history of psychology, in this case, to explore how ideas about the erasure of the mind developed in particular circumstances, and how it was pictured as a traumatic destruction, analogous to ‘totalitarianism’. As with trauma, brainwashing is a term with a complex history. This was not to seek simply to get rid of the category of ‘brainwashing’, or assume it is simply a rhetorical image, but to explore what it means, what assumptions it might carry, or what models we might assume in seeking to help people recover from it. He noted how, in the post-war period, assumptions about the natural healthiness of the liberal democratic form of state were analogous to the model of the ‘healthy mind’.

This conversation about freedom of thought and brainwashing deepened our view of these medical psychiatric categories and prompted further discussion of how they should be defined and applied as they work to restore a ‘healthy mind’. At the same time, Pick also pointed out that we might not want to conduct this conversation as though people are just passive recipients, or victims of a particular discourse. It is important to look at what people do with the categories that are established, and what meanings and stories they make out of these terms or models. In the end he contended that we need the categories as much as we need to constantly problematize them. Trauma as a concept and as a category must be further understood and problematized, especially in these post-conflict contexts.

This report was written by Ikenna Acholonu at the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa.

List of Attendees

1. Ikenna Acholonu
2. Professor Tim Allen
3. Dr. Ana Antic
4. Dorothy Atim
5. Jacky Atingo
6. Kara Blackmore
7. Dr. Anna Macdonald
8. James Ocitti
9. Professor Melissa Parker
10. Dr. Erin Peters
11. Professor Daniel Pick
12. Dr. Holly Porter
13. Elizabeth Storer
14. Costanza Torre


Charlson, Fiona, et al. 2019. New WHO prevalence estimates of mental disorders in conflict settings: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet (London, England). (accessed 19th September 2019).

Norman Sartorius, Robert Shapiro, Assen Jablensky, The International Pilot Study of Schizophrenia, Schizophrenia Bulletin, Volume 1, Issue 11, Winter 1974, Pages 21–34,