Mental Health: Victims of Torture May Feel Vulnerable and Powerless

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By Aruna Papp

Canada welcomes thousands of new immigrants every year, some among them are victims of horrible torture. Individuals who have dared to challenge political dictators and religious leaders are often tortured. Survivors of torture very often have special mental health needs.

The “United Nations Convention Against Torture” defines torture as follows: “Any act by which severe pain or suffering whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidation or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in, or incidental to, lawful sanctions”.

Research shows that there is a high rate of mental illness among the victims of torture. However, there is little information on the resettlement process and what impact it has on mental disorders of torture victims. Lack of information could be due to fear of being labeled as ‘victims of torture’. They may also fear of authorities and may not trust mental health experts. There is also great fear of stigma attached to mental health. People feel ashamed and do not want to be viewed as being weak. In many communities if one family member is identified with mental illness, it could impact the status of other family members who can lose face in the community. These issues and many other prevent individuals from seeking help in a timely manner.

New Canadians spend the first few years establishing themselves, locating housing, employment, enrolling children in schools and becoming acculturated to Canada. This can be a very stressful time and they may not notice symptoms of mental distress. They may also start to believe that the past has had no lasting impact on them and they are doing fine.

There is no set time period when a person might start to experience mental distress due to torture, each individual is different. The symptoms can start with disturbed sleep, lack of sleep, decreased or loss of appetite, lack of interest in social and leisure activities leaving the person isolated. Feeling of guilt for having survived sometimes prevents them from celebrating success in their own lives.

Some individuals find that they can mourn for their loved ones, but instead of mourning what they have lost, they sometimes feel guilty for being alive. Soon deep feelings of sorrow can become overwhelming, frightening and confusing. Some victims report that they feel a loss of purpose or direction in their life. They miss their homeland and everything that was familiar to them and find it difficult to re-establish their self confidence and trust in themselves.

The following are common problems encountered by survivors of torture:
○ They are unable to create a new identity.
○ The fear of losing control over their mind or having an emotional breakdown becomes real.
○ They hide their pain, afraid of bringing attention to themselves; they withdraw from family and the community.

These symptoms can have serious consequences. In order to deal with these unsettling emotions, individuals may do harm to themselves or turn to alcohol, drugs or other temporary measures of relief. In time, these can become addictive.

If you are a victim of torture or know someone in need, it is important to seek professional assistance. You should always know where to turn for help. This can begin with visit to the family doctor.

You can also contact The Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture at 416-363-1066 or visit their website at www.ccvt.org. Even if they can’t help you directly they may be able to help you find help in your community.

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