Healing trauma through resistance: Beyond colonial mental health models in Palestine
The colonial legacy of psychiatry in Palestine began in 1920 with the British mandate, which ushered in an era of coercive practices that were rooted in a focus on studying the ‘Indigenous mind’ and its supposed deficits. Psychiatry thus provided one of many avenues through which Palestinians were reduced to individual colonial subjects to be studied, treated, and ‘civilised’ by their colonisers.
During the First Intifada in 1987, media attention turned to Israeli military violence, increasing the emphasis on the human rights abuses and psychological trauma that Palestinians were, and continue to be, subjected to.
But rather than empowering Palestinians to fight against their oppressor, the signing of the Oslo accords - and the ensuing NGO-isation and neoliberalisation of the Palestinian cause - reinforced the narrative that represents Palestinians as agentless, depoliticised, and individual subjects to be clinically treated by mental health professionals and legally defended by human rights activists.
"What this paradigm fails to account for is the political context of colonisation that cannot be separated from the reality of mental health in the Occupied Palestinian Territories"
We subsequently saw the exportation of Western mental health trends in Palestine that focused on the medicalisation of mental health, the use of diagnostic instruments that quantify symptoms, and the rise of individualised psychological therapies and treatments. What this paradigm fails to account for is the political context of colonisation that cannot be separated from the reality of mental health in Palestine.
The resulting individualisation and de-contextualisation of mental health in Palestine harms not only our minds, but also our cause. By locating the ‘problem’ within the individual as opposed to attributing it to the settler colonial violence that Palestinians are exposed to on a daily basis, the focus on human rights and psychological trauma furthers colonial aims.
This is not to say that there isn’t trauma in Palestine or amongst Palestinians; rather it is a critique of the Western mental health approach and its narrow definition of trauma, what we are told must be done to heal those traumas, and how both are completely void of any structural analysis that gets the root of the problem: settler colonialism.
In-depth: "The definition of PTSD does not apply to Palestinians in Gaza. We experience continuous stress and trauma all of the time so there isn't really a 'post'" - @RazanShamallakh reports https://t.co/0ggKqFAgWY— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) June 9, 2021
The impacts of individualisation of Palestinian mental health are two-fold. First, it normalises the idea that it is Palestinians who need to change in order to withstand or be ‘resilient’ to the oppression they face; this simultaneously renders invisible and enables the broader structural and systemic violence of settler colonialism. Second, individualisation necessarily stifles popular resistance and the revolutionary potential of the collective, thus actively undermining the national liberation movement.
Neocolonial and neoliberal foreign aid agencies and governments are driving forces behind this phenomenon of individualisation. Such agencies provide conditional funding that punishes resistance by asking mental health grant recipients to report on and differentiate between Palestinians with ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ modes of political expression. Trauma funding is subsequently tied to producing certain types of ‘well behaved’ individuals, which not only pathologises mental health, but also pathologises resistance.
This pathologisation, and subsequent stifling, of Palestinian resistance also has negative consequences on Palestinian mental health since organising efforts and engagement in acts of resistance have been found to be protective and healing for the mental health of those experiencing settler colonial violence.
The Israeli occupation and system of apartheid saturates every aspect of Palestinian life, including their mental health, which services are available and whether or not they can access those services. This is powerfully articulated by Lara and Stephen Sheehi who, in their recent book, describe how the occupation physically enters the clinic room. One anecdote they present is that of a psychologist from Bethlehem, Cesar Hakim, who says:
“I was with a patient and the Israeli military were chasing Palestinians in Bethlehem. You know checkpoint 300 is, what, less than 1200 or 1300 metres from here? We could hear the [Israeli military] shooting. There was smoke and [tear] gas. You could smell it. You could smell the gas and smoke in the room. We just carried on with the session. We closed the window, but the smell in the room was already heavy.”
Divorcing Palestinian mental health from the social, political, historical, and cultural context creates a false separation between the clinic and the street and functions to pathologise instead of historicise and contextualise Palestinian mental health. Through the denial of Palestinian history and political reality in the clinic, the trauma industry furthers the violent erasure of Palestinians.
The de-contextualisation of mental health thus works in tandem with individualisation to stifle Palestinian resistance and this is constructed by design, not by accident. Allowing someone to transcend the trauma model of mental health would provide them with the opportunity to speak to the realities of what’s happening on their own terms and using their own language, as opposed to the sanitised jargon of the trauma industry that’s imposed on us.
"Divorcing Palestinian mental health from the social, political, historical, and cultural context creates a false separation between the clinic and the street and functions to pathologise instead of historicise and contextualise Palestinian mental health"
Finding an alternative way of thinking and speaking about mental health is therefore an important step in the healing process for Palestinians, rallying the liberatory potential for resistance within us while honouring Indigenous practices like sumud, which refers to the Palestinian tradition of steadfastness.
Palestinian mental health workers and academics have called for a push-back against trauma discourses and dominant frames of biomedical intervention that neutralise the political praxis underlying mental health in Palestine for decades.
There is an urgent need to reconceptualize Palestinian mental health using frameworks of indigeneity, sovereignty, and social justice that affirm resistance and anticolonial struggle as part of both understanding and preserving the mental health of Palestinians.
Palestinian mental health workers and academics are already doing this critical work. The Palestine-Global Mental Health Network is one example of this, illustrating how mental health workers can and are uniting and organising across historic Palestine to meet, join, think, heal and treat in a manner that is underpinned by Indigenous liberatory practices.
But until power is shifted away from neoliberal NGOs and foreign-aid agencies and towards Palestinian grassroots movements and organisations, our resistance efforts will continue to be undermined by the trauma industry. Power needs to be centred in mental health workers who are deeply rooted in our communities and our cause, and are uncompromising when it comes to our liberation.
Jeanine Hourani is a Palestinian organiser, writer, and researcher currently based in London.
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