Portentousness is the means by which cliché, the banal and the obvious are turned into technicality or wisdom, or both. An editorial in a recent edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association titled “Mental Health Effects of Hurricane Sandy: Characteristics, Potential Aftermath, and Response” illustrates this very well. One expects a medical journal to contain information that is not common knowledge or available to everyone on the most minimal reflection; it is therefore tempting, though a logical error, for authors to suppose that if what they have written is published in such a medical journal, it ipso facto contains such information.
The editorial in question makes statements such as “The mental health effects of any given disaster are related to the intensity of exposure to the event. Sustaining personal injury and experiencing the injury or death of a loved one in the disaster are particularly potent predictors of psychological impairment.” In other words those who suffer more suffer more. The editorial continues, “Research has also indicated that disaster-related displacement, relocation, and loss of property and personal finances are risk factors for mental health problems…”
I don’t suppose this will come as any great surprise, let alone shock, to readers. I will overlook the rather strange locution “loss of personal finances” – one continues to have personal finances even in bankruptcy. But how vital is research that tells us that people who are displaced and lose their possessions are likely to be unhappy for a long time? Until such research was done, did anyone for a moment doubt that losing your home, becoming a refugee, having your wife or child killed in front of you. etc., was a potent cause of misery? Have we so lost our common humanity that we need “research” to tell us this, or that such misery may be long-lasting?
The editorial continues, “the mental health effects of disaster are not limited to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and may include general distress, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders.” As this is written, it implies that general distress and anxiety are in themselves psychiatric disorders, that the person who is (say) distressed at the loss of his home is in some way psychiatrically disturbed. This is indeed odd; I would put it rather the other way round, that the person who is not in the least distressed at the loss of his home is likely to be psychiatrically disturbed. An undistressed murderer is a much more chilling individual to meet than one who is distressed.
Perhaps what the authors meant (one certainly hopes that what they meant) was the following: “the psychological effects of disaster are not limited to PTSD and other psychiatric disorders, but include general distress and anxiety.” But this is not what they wrote; and one suspects that their imprecision of language is a reflection of their imprecision of thought.
Let us continue briefly on this via dolorosa of cliché. The authors tells us: “Notably, the mental effects after a disaster vary across the exposed population.” But an assertion of fact in whose contradiction no one would for a moment believe is not worth making. When you have nothing to say, say nothing. It is hardly surprising that the authors’ prescriptions should make Ellen Wheeler Wilcox seem hard-edged and cynical by comparison: promoting a sense of safety, calming anxiety, increasing collective efficacy, encouraging social support, and instilling hope.
Actually, another editorial in the same edition of the Journal provides us with a clue as to its subtext, as literary theorists would call it. The other editorial is about the forthcoming reduction in federal funding for medical research. The author quotes Winston Churchill’s favourite Chinese ideogaph, that for crisis, which he maintained contained simultaneously the notion of disaster and opportunity. For the entrepreneurs of psychopathology, disasters are an opportunity, none better in fact.
First published in PJ Media.