Those who study and treat disorders of the mind―such as neuroscientists, psychiatrists and therapists―are in a position of influence. Their decisions and actions have the potential to impact individuals at the deepest levels by affecting our memories and even how we see ourselves. Such professionals “...occupy positions of intellectual authority,” as Lehigh neuroscientist and artist Ann E. Fink writes. Their choices can have profound consequences.
History, both distant and recent, provides numerous examples of the use and misuse of this power. Consider the continuously evolving Code of Ethics for the American Psychological Association (APA) and the criticism the organization received for its involvement in the post-9/11 torture of prisoners held Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, among others. That the APA spoke out last week in opposition to the U.S. administration’s announcement that migrants detained at the U.S. border can be held indefinitely highlights the importance of ethics to the mental health field.
In her latest paper―written and illustrated as a comic book―Fink, a professor of practice in biological sciences, urges both scientists and clinicians working on mental health issues to think critically about not only the biological meaning but the social meaning of trauma. In “Fanon’s Police Inspector,” published in AJOB Neuroscience, she offers a bioethical inquiry into the social obligations of studying and treating trauma through an examination of a true story told by Martinique-born psychiatrist Frantz Fanon in his 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth.
In the book, Fanon, a French-educated black man who practiced medicine in French-colonized Algeria during its war for independence, writes about a patient: a white, male, European police inspector who is employed in torture on behalf of the colonial government. The inspector who, as Fink writes, would likely meet the current standards of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), seeks help because he cannot stop beating up his wife and children, “...even his twenty-month old baby.” The inspector asks the doctor “...to help him torture...with a total peace of mind.”