Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: Torture by any other name

In Brief

Torture by any other name

Interviews with torture survivors in the former Yugoslavia have shown that humiliation, attacks on personal integrity, and other kinds of abuse have much the same effect as torture that involves the infliction of physical pain. All forms of physical and psychological abuse work in the same way — by causing severe distress and a sense of helplessness — and all have similar short- and long-term psychological effects.

Researchers administered a clinical interview and a special questionnaire to 279 men and women an average of eight years after their experiences during the conflicts that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. They had been soldiers, prisoners of war, internees, refugees, and displaced persons. The questions covered more than 40 kinds of abuse, including beatings, forced nudity and standing, isolation, rope bondage, sexual humiliation, and deprivation of sleep, water, and food.

The interview subjects rated each type of ill treatment for the severity of the resulting distress and for the degree of controllability, as measured by the capacity to make use of distraction and other coping techniques. They were also examined for social and occupational disability, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder.

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