Silence, Distance and Neutrality: The Politics of Emotional Distress during the Northern Irish Troubles

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Abstract

During the Troubles (1968-98), the mental healthcare profession surprisingly paid little attention to conflict-related psychological distress, despite Northern Irish citizens being embroiled in a protracted, emotionally damaging conflict. Only a small number of independent researchers spoke out to insist that conflict was causing widespread emotional disorder. While some mental health professionals have retrospectively ascribed this situation to a limited contemporary knowledge of trauma and PTSD until the 1980s, this article argues that strategies of ‘silence’, ‘distancing’ and maintaining ‘neutrality’ framed the activities of Northern Irish researchers. In the 1970s, social psychologist Rona Fields controversially claimed that the British government was pursuing ‘psychological genocide’, deeply politicizing claims of emotional disturbance. Largely in response, Northern Irish mental healthcare researchers produced research that actively avoided political debate. Instead, they publicly concluded that local communities were coping well with conflict, a suggestion which clashes with present-day claims of historical trauma. Overall, the article reveals how Troubles-period research agendas were guided first and foremost by socio-political exigencies rather than clinical need and desires to depoliticize psychological distress and separate mental healthcare from politics.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSocial History
Volume46
Issue number4
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 18 Apr 2021

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