“Treatment” for suffering just creates the disease

For those of us who learnt of the tragedy through the media, the anguish and grief of the family who lost their two youngest children in the icy depths of Lake Wakatipu is painful even to imagine. We know their lives will never be the same again. So it was comforting to read that the people of Glenorchy are doing what close-knit communities always do in times of adversity.

“The 111 call on Friday night, made by the children’s father, Stefan Poplawski, brought not just the emergency services to Greenstone Elfin Bay Station, but scores of local residents – by boat, car and helicopter. Some came to assist the commercial divers attempting to retrieve the lost children … others came to give whatever comfort they could.”

A police officer reported that the community had rallied protectively around the family, so we can be confident that the sensible, good-hearted people of Glenorchy are giving the bereaved family the comfort and practical assistance they need. The school mates of the Poplawski children are not so lucky. They’re being offered counselling.

Why? Sure, the accident was a terrible tragedy, but tragedies are nothing new and neither is the suffering they cause.

Throughout human history, people – both adults and children – have shown themselves to be remarkably resilient. Whenever and wherever tragedy strikes there is always strength and solace to be found in adversity. What is new in our modern world is the propensity of mental health practitioners to pathologise ordinary human suffering. These so-called experts want us to believe that suffering is no longer part of the human condition; these days suffering is a disease in need of treatment. A whole industry has grown up around this belief. Now, when adversity strikes, ACC-funded trauma counsellors descend on the unfortunate community in droves. And here’s the rub: trauma counselling doesn’t work. In fact, trauma counselling does more harm than good.

There have now been over a dozen controlled trials in which people involved in accidents and other traumas were randomly allocated to receive or not receive counselling. The results showed conclusively that counselling immediately after a traumatic event does not work. Those who received it were no better emotionally than those who did not. Worse, the better studies with longer follow-ups showed that receiving such counselling increased the rate of later psychological problems. The group that seemed to be harmed most by this were those who were particularly upset at the time – exactly those who you might think ought to be treated. So immediate post-trauma counselling may help us feel that something is being done, but it doesn’t help those who receive it. The fundamental problem with trauma counselling seems to be that asking anyone to talk to a complete stranger about their feelings while they are still raw with pain just makes things worse.

For most mentally healthy people – including the children of Glenorchy – not talking about it is often the most appropriate immediate response to a disaster. No doubt, in their own good time, the kids will talk about the tragedy as little or as much as they want with their family and friends and teachers, for these are the people who know them best, and who know best what support they need and when they need it. Of course they will be anxious for a while, and in need of comfort. But, as always, there will be chores to be done, lessons to be learned, sports to be played. Day by day, life does indeed go on. These children don’t need counselling. As they learn to cope with adversity they’ve already got the best role models any child could have – the courageous and compassionate adults in their own community.

Originally published in the Otago Daily Times, 15 September 2005.