Whenever an armed conflict breaks out, regardless of where it is, we are instantly presented with the number of people killed, along with how many families and entire communities have been forced from their homes. As regrettable as it sounds, those of us who have been so lucky to remain safely distant from such conflicts throughout our lives have become relatively inured to them. Ukraine, to put it coldly and crudely, is the folie du jour in this regard.
As a result, the only violence toward the displaced communities we tend to discuss is the immediate physical damage: the harm done to individuals through murder, torture, and sexual assault, and the violation of their property rights by either the armed forces or revolutionary militias. However, regimes will often utilize a lesser known, or rather, less understood, tactic against these vulnerable communities that some may argue does not constitute violence as it is not an overt physical attack.
Rather, the strategy employs what psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove, in her 2004 work, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do about It termed the “root shock of forced displacement,” which she defines as the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem. This root shock is often the precursor to a plethora of other mental illnesses, such as depression. Regimes of all shades and labels have often forced communities from their own lands and capitalized on the subsequent trauma resulting from such violence to categorize them as undesirable elements within society in order to alienate them and enact subtler forms of discrimination.
The Mentally Ill as the “Other”
It’s never been uncommon for those suffering from mental illnesses to be vilified and identified as less than human; it is customary for regimes to define what makes people dangerous to the rest of society and use the state apparatus to target them. In their 2004 book, Violence in War and Peace, anthropologists Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois assert:
The mad, the differently abled, the mentally vulnerable have often fallen into this category of the unworthy living, as have the very old and infirm, the sick-poor, and, of course, the despised racial, religious, sexual, and ethnic groups of the moment.
This is not a stance unique to either end of the political spectrum, as Murray Rothbard pointed out in For a New Liberty: when afforded the powers of coercion inherent to the state, both liberals and conservatives will use their newfound powers to impose their own vision of what behaviors and lifestyles are acceptable, or “sociable,” and antagonize, or even criminalize, whatever does not meet their criteria.
British political commentators Peter Hitchens and Owen Jones, the former an ardent conservative thinker and the latter a left-leaning journalist and activist, have even agreed on the point that governments deliberately inflate incarceration figures with mentally ill inmates, classifying them as violent. In an interview, Hitchens glibly remarked that while conservative icon Enoch Powell was rightly loathed for his “Rivers of Blood” speech, he committed a more atrocious act when he closed residential facilities for people suffering from mental health issues. This placed the burden of their care on law enforcement, which in turn resulted in mentally ill people’s being moved into correctional institutions.
Regimes similarly provide the legal grounds to label refugees and others fleeing persecution in their native regions as “violent,” “unstable,” or “abnormal,” which in turn leads to their alienation from a society that does not permit their integration.
No Hearth, No Health
To first understand how mental health, or rather illness, is used by the state against displaced communities, one must first understand the role that homelands as a concept play in the social, mental, and emotional well-being of individuals. While this role may differ from region to region due to cultural, socioeconomic, and linguistic contexts, we can find parallels that point to the homeland as representing normality and harmony. In Narratives of Exile and Identity (2018), in which he describes the experiences of deported Lithuanians after the expansion of the USSR into the Baltic states in 1940, Tomas Balkelis found that Lithuanian refugees associated their native region with ordinary civilian life and freedom as citizens. Similarly, the Korwa, a displaced tribal community originating in central India, are described by Mokshika Gaur and Soumendra M. Patnaik in their 2011 study in the following manner:
The Korwa, both young and old, consider the forest as their actual “home” and associate all of their maladies with the new living space. In the forest, their economic pursuits were in direct relationship with nature, required working together as a community, and kept them close to their ancestors, which is not possible in the current set-up.
The association developed between the onset of new diseases, both physical and mental, and forced relocation, is not unique to tribal lifestyles. It is a phenomenon that seen in a multitude of groups, across several generations, and under a variety of circumstances, whether colonization, civil war, or ethno-religious persecution. In their 1997 work, Social Suffering, Arthur Kleinman, Veena Das, and Margaret Lock cite Jews and other minorities’ fleeing the Holocaust, Native Americans’ growing up on reservations in the United States, and Iraqi refugees’ fleeing militarized conflict as examples of communities who have been rendered vulnerable as a result of war and forcibly evicted from their lands and homes.
This vulnerability allows state institutions to further undermine sociocultural bonds and dynamics, which causes several behaviors to repeat themselves across generations; the very same psychological phenomena that Sir William MacGregor observed in Fiji while serving as a medical officer in the 1870s, are reported in refugees in Sri Lanka who fled their villages due to escalated conflict during the Sri Lankan civil war, and in the Chagossians, who were exiled to Mauritius from their islands in the Chagos Archipelago by the British government between 1968 and 1973, as described by David Vine in Island of Shame (2011). In all three instances, depression, mania, anger, and “melancholia” all contributed to an uptick in figures for institutionalization, incarceration, and last, but not least, suicide.
It can be easy to understand the injustices committed toward civilians in a war or conflict merely as physical damages, but when there are state institutions or government-funded bodies that actively discriminate against and stigmatize the “abnormal” behavior of displaced communities, further scrutiny is required. In order to better understand how, why, and when regimes target certain groups, it is necessary to determine how state institutions inflict longer-lasting scars and wounds that transcend generations, beginning with the physical damage to their bodies and homes.