By Ryan J. Suto
If Washington wants to decrease volatility and violence in the Arab region, US foreign policy must advocate for the treatment of conflict-related mental health issues among Arab publics.
In the months after the outbreak of the Arab Spring protests in early 2011, President Barack Obama emphasized that the United States will continue to pursue core interests and principles, including opposing “the use of violence and repression” and “safe-guarding the security of the region.” Since that time, war, civil conflict and political upheaval have spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Rather than arming specific groups or continuing to sell arms to repressive regimes, US foreign policy would be better served by more long-term, holistic approaches to combating violence and promoting security. One such approach would be mental-health advocacy.
At home, the US is beginning to understand the importance of mental health: President Obama has several times allocated funds to bolster mental health access and treatment in the United States—notably during his push to end gun violence, and again during his push to curb the opioid abuse epidemic in the country. Congress is currently considering over a dozen domestic mental health-related pieces of legislation. Although the federal government has found that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) “is associated with an increased risk of violence,” no such connection has been made within foreign policy.
PTSD is the most common mental health issue resulting from episodes of combat, social upheaval and violence found throughout many Arab countries. Although life-long PTSD is best predicted by the number of traumatic events experienced, trauma can result from violence, recurring memories, displacement and ubiquitous fear.
Using examples from around the world can be illustrative: During conflict in Burundi, war-related psychological distress was found in 44% of individuals studied during conflict and 29% two years after conflict, whereas 57% of Ugandan students exhibited “clinically significant” levels of PTSD four years after the end of war. In East Timor, grief and a sense of injustice “exerted a considerable effect on PTSD symptoms” among those studied. Researchers in Guatemala, meanwhile, found that community social psychology is important to understanding political and economic community development. Each conflict and cultural context produce different symptoms in victims, which vary in responses to trauma, requiring treatment to be as locally tailored as possible.
Picture: James Gordon from Los Angeles, California, USA [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons