The Cross-Cultural Validity of PTSD in Refugee Populations

Hannah Yellin, SIT Graduate Institute - Study Abroad

Switzerland: Global Health and Development Policy


Since PTSD was first introduced into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980, psychologists and humanitarian aid workers have increasingly identified this anxiety disorder in refugee populations as a way to document and quantify the effects of human rights violations. Reported rates of PTSD in refugee groups are indeed strikingly high, independent of the country of origin or other demographic factors. Despite the intrinsic connection between trauma and refugee status, the use of DSM nosology as a universally applicable tool has come under close scrutiny and criticism. As a category developed by western psychologists who subscribe to specific explanatory models of health and illness, some scholars assert that PTSD does not have cross-cultural validity. This study explores the applicability of PTSD to non-western refugee populations through a discussion of the current debate and an examination of case studies from three different regions. Findings show that mental health services in host countries should integrate ideologies of social suffering into their treatment approaches rather than focusing solely on the medicalization of trauma.