A feminist critique of trauma therapy

Authored by: Emma Tseris

Routledge International Handbook of Critical Mental Health

Print publication date:  September  2017
Online publication date:  September  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138225473
eBook ISBN: 9781315399584
Adobe ISBN:


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In comparison to the overt forms of harm that continue to be perpetrated within mental health systems (for instance, electroshock, restraint, seclusion and forced medication), it is understandable that some feminists have praised trauma therapy for its approach to working with women presenting to mental health services. For example, proponents of trauma therapy cite the deep interest shown by trauma therapists in women’s biographies, in comparison to psychiatry’s lack of interest in diverse social contexts (Lindorfer 2007). In addition, trauma workers have argued that there is a strong distinction to be made between a pharmacological response to distress and trauma therapy’s emphasis on meaning-making through listening to clients’ stories (Dillon 2010). For these reasons, trauma therapists claim to offer a radically different understanding of how women who have experienced gender-based violence can be respectfully responded to by mental health workers, in comparison to a traditional psychiatric response based on diagnosis and medication. Drawing on critical feminist scholarship, this chapter takes a different approach to discussing the influence of trauma therapy, offering instead an examination of the socio-cultural conditions that may sit behind trauma therapy’s immense rise in popularity within psychiatric contexts. It will argue that trauma therapy has gained traction within mental health services not because of a sudden interest within psychiatry in feminist activism, but rather due to the ability of trauma therapy to reduce complex social justice issues into psychological symptoms, which are then thought to be curable through expert mental health treatment. Therefore, it is necessary to be cautious about the increasing popularisation of trauma therapies, due to their involvement in labelling female survivors of violence with a mental health disorder, at the expense of paying attention to the behaviours of the – usually male – perpetrators of violence against women. In this way, trauma therapies often participate in reproducing, rather than disrupting, the tendency within psychiatry to de-contextualise women’s distress from its social and gendered context.

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