Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) first became a diagnosis in 1980 after psychoanalysts Chaim Shatan and Robert J. Lifton lobbied the American Psychiatric Association to create a new term to describe the cluster of symptoms they and fellow clinicians were observing among clients related to overwhelming impacts from experiencing traumatic incident(s).
As they made their observations in previous years, simultaneously, sociologist Kai Erikson (1978) was documenting how a technological disaster, resulting in a catastrophic flood in Buffalo Creek, WV, devastated an entire community. Erikson noted how medical and psychological diagnoses at that point did not adequately articulate what these people experienced, which led him to consider a new concept he called disaster syndrome, and eventually to coin the term collective trauma.
According to Erikson (2005), disaster syndrome consists of the following symptoms:
Erikson observed how collective trauma worked “its way slowly and even insidiously into the awareness of those who suffer from it,” (Erikson, 2005, p. 154). He eventually came to define it as "a blow to the basic tissues of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together and impairs the prevailing sense of communality. Collective trauma may result from a sudden, shocking event, or emerge as a gradual realization that the community no longer exists as an effective source of support and that an important part of the [group identity] has disappeared . . . ‘we’ no longer exist as a connected pair or as linked cells in a larger communal body," (Erikson, 1994, p. 233).
Collective Trauma, or Disaster Syndrome, is not simply a sum of many individual experiences of trauma, but involves people individually impacted by trauma who also have a shared sense of losing what they had in common. What they had in common may be their family life, their work, their neighborhood, their faith community, their school, or their community group.
Being a leader among a group that has experienced a severe collective loss involves additional responsibilities than existed prior to what happened. Helping to navigate your group through the rough terrain of response and, potentially, rebuilding, involves particular skills, including:
None of these are easy. They take a long approach to recovery, rather than quick fixes. And they require steady nourishment along the way – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
We encourage you to browse this website for further information on how to navigate long-term recovery if you are in the midst of collective trauma response. If you would like to explore more with a staff member, reach out. We'd be glad to hear from you!
From 2012-2021, this blog space explored expanding understanding and best practices for leadership and whole-community care.