Freudian Slip:  The UN Once Again Considers the Benefits of Psychology, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 May

Editor’s Note:  Appreciation goes to Karin Perro and Lia Petridis Maiello for helping with this (for me) difficult topic.

During the past frenetic week of activity, there was a “psychiatric” common thread to many UN discussions and deliberations.  To describe this unusual focus and our own stake in it will require a bit of context.

Despite the emotional needs of so many in New York City and the number of persons here seeking some sort of therapeutic relief, psychology as a public good seems to have fallen on lean times. Severe personality disorders are on the rise, but seem to evoke more scientific and pharmaceutical interest than compassion from service providers.  Too many of us seem to be more stressed, more fragile, more disconnected from community life (at least the life outside our smart phones) without proper ties of support. At the same time we seem less interested in changing ourselves than in getting others (or circumstances) to change instead.  Too often we leave many of our deepest dreams and profound longings to more or less explore themselves.

Some of this disconnect can be laid at the feet of the psychological profession itself, one that is costly to engage and, at times, indifferent to the social and economic determinants of individual suffering. Some professionals have even crossed ethical and legal lines as noted in a recent story in Al Jazeera about contributions made by trained psychologists to US government torture strategies. These “contributions” are hardly confined to the US but they all sow suspicion of a field that could contribute more to help us all cope and that surely should remain above such ethical compromises.

There are consequences to all of these disconnects and compromises.  In the “developed” world as well as in much of the rest of it, we have ‘graduated’ it seems, from the age of reason to the age of advertising.  What is true is what we can convince others is true.  We seek affinity more than truth, including seeking endless reassurances from friends and professionals alike.  Mindfulness, self-examination, genuine connection – these seem more and more to have become quaint artifacts of a bygone time, though historians would note that there has probably never been a time when these attributes were truly ascendant.

It is in this uneven and sometimes perplexing context that the recent policy interest in psychological needs and skills across many UN conference rooms was particularly welcome.  It seemed as though the “anchor” for such interest was the annual “Psychology Day” event co-sponsored by Palau and El Salvador. Specifically, this event sought to explore how the field of psychology might better contribute to the fulfillment of post-2015 development goals. Of special concern to the speakers was the assumed potential of the psychology profession to help us overcome “inequality,” which is itself a major impediment to SDG implementation as noted frequently within various UN forums. As Palau’s Ambassador Otto noted, “the world we want,” a world in part of greater equality, must address mental as well as physical limitations, especially with reference to the world’s children and other vulnerable persons.

Perhaps the clearest case for psychology’s positive contribution to UN policy came from El Salvador’s Ambassador Zamora who quite rightly noted the urgent need for psychological services to address a wide range of trauma, including from torture and natural disaster.   With images of the unimaginable Nepal devastation and frustrating Baltimore unrest in the minds of most everyone at the UN, trauma itself could well have been the theme of the week.  The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples focused on youth suicide, a tragedy born of discrimination and humiliation that is both heartbreaking and correctable.  Ukraine co-sponsored two recent events, one on human rights violations against Crimean Tatars, and another on the long term effects of Chernobyl, both of which have major implications for trauma and its aftermath.  UNESCO and the Committee on Information sponsored a discussion on violence and harassment that undermine journalists and other media professionals. The US and Republic of Korea co-sponsored a raucous event on human rights violations in North Korea (DPRK) featuring three voices from the vast, uncounted abused in that country. The Security Council wrestled with chaos in Yemen and Libya and the Peacebuilding Commission struggled with possible constitutional violations and resulting street violence in Burundi.

Even delegates seeking nuclear disarmament at the NPT review conference expressed deep sadness over the Nepal earthquake, many of whom then went on to note the equally unfathomable humanitarian consequences – of the maimed and traumatized — from an exploding nuclear weapon.   Trauma seemed to be following diplomats and NGOs around the UN campus.

Human beings are remarkably resilient, but all of the above references highlight events and circumstances with potentially grave, long-term psychological impacts, especially with respect to children and youth.  Many of these effects will present themselves only after long periods of gestation, with clear potential to threaten the future ability of those victimized to raise families, hold a job, avoid addiction, and contribute to their communities.   Surely the diminished capacity of global citizens in a time of great social challenges warrants significant professional attention.

Few if any of the deep wounds from the many trauma-inflicting events in our recent history can be treated with ointment and plastic surgery.   As resilient as we might be, we also scar easily and sometimes profoundly.  Without proper emotional care, the toxins of trauma can leak into many areas of life, including the areas we most need to nurture and protect in order to maintain reasonable prospects for sustainable meaning and fulfillment in our lives.

With all the trauma currently inflicted by torturers, insurgencies, earthquakes, reactor failures, and melting ice flows, all with particular implications for young people and vulnerable populations, the “leakage” is likely to be severe and its effects long-lasting if cannot provide more sustained emotional support – while doing all that we can to close the faucets through which so much misery currently flows.

In addition to the “no-brainer” need for more trauma response, there is at least one other major contribution that psychology can make to the work of the UN.   At his or her best, a skilled counselor or therapist must pay close attention to the client but must also be able to scrutinize the client’s narrative – because the narrative represents in certain key ways the inability of the client to cope successfully with pain and longing – even trauma.  Shifting the narrative, attentively and kindly, is part of shifting priorities.  It is also part of exposing fallacies in our cherished ‘sense of things,’ the rationales we provide for our behavior and our life circumstances that sometimes seem more about deflecting responsibility and manipulating outcomes than truly understanding the circumstance in which we find ourselves.

This skill set – attentiveness combined with a healthy, engaged skepticism to help scrutinize the most obvious policy explanations (or policy pronouncements) is something that the UN could use more of.

One dimension warranting suspicion might well be the increasing tendency inside the UN to substitute affect for sound policy.  An example of this was last Friday’s “media summit” wherein a full conference room was solicited to the task of ‘bringing the message of the SDGs to 7 million persons.”  The objective was public “ownership” of the goals, certainly most worthwhile, but the audience was almost discouraged by the event leaders from giving too much scrutiny to the goals or their viability, not to mention the major political and fiscal challenges that remain before and after the General Assembly convenes in September. The goal here was to ‘sell’ the product, not worry too much about the product’s contents.

In a somewhat similar vein, the US/Republic of Korea event on human rights violations in the DPRK, held in the shadow of the NPT Review, folded stories of victims into a framework that seemed to suggest a clear and immanent policy response.  The behavior of DPRK representatives attempting to derail the presentations of victims was reprehensible, and it certainly is important to have our UN bubble punctuated from time to time by the testimony of the abused.  Nevertheless, there simply is no easy pathway from victim’s testimony to consensus policy, certainly not in this UN, this Security Council.  The organizers had to know, even if the speakers and audience might not, that the urgency underscoring this event was as likely to raise expectations as generate fresh, consensus- based policy options

This generalized raising of public expectations in the absence of careful analysis or clear, remedial policy options would not qualify as a slip in any “Freudian” sense, but this disconnect bears potentially serious implications for public trust in the UN system.  I learned through many years in a Harlem parish that, as hard as we tried to overcome poverty and addiction in that place, we had to be sure to avoid adding the burdens of unfulfilled expectations and promises not kept to the burdens of simply being poor.  People needed (and deserved) clarity and discernment, not salesmanship.

This applies equally and especially to the abused and traumatized.  While enlisting their desperately needed guidance in addressing trauma, psychologists also can, at their best, help us sort out the implications and responsibilities of the expectations we create from policies and campaigns that sound better than they are. This “sorting” can do much to help us build a more honest, discerning, reliable and responsive policy community.

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