The NGO Committee on Mental Health in Consultative Relationship to the United Nations Trauma Working Group Annual Meeting: “The Fight for the Suffering Other”

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Irit Felsen, PhD

Irit Felsen, PhD

This year’s annual meeting of the Trauma Working group took place on February 14thand was entitled “The Fight for the Suffering “Other”. The program provided a valuable opportunity to hear from colleagues who are directly involved in some of the most critical trauma-related topics of our time:the global refugee crisis, and the rise in discrimination and hate crimes in the USA since the 2016 presidential election.

Spyros D. Orfanos, PhD, ABPP, is Clinic Director of the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, where he spearheaded the creation of the Immigration and Human Rights Work Group. Dr. Orfanos has partnered the Work Group with the NYU School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic and Physicians for Human Rights. Dr. Orfanos discussed immigration and displacement and the interface of psychoanalysis and human rights, and showed a short clip from the documentary “4.1 Miles,” created by Daphne Matziaraki, which followed the action of a small Coast Guard boat during rescue-at-sea operations with refugees near the island of Lesbos.

Cindy Veldhuis, PhD. is a researcher at Columbia University and she participates in a cross-university collaboration between San Jose State University, University of Kentucky, and Columbia University that launched a national online survey aimed at understanding the impact of marriage equality and the 2016 elections on the health and well-being of those belonging to gender and sexual minorities. Dr. Veldhuis’ findings show that the current political culture in the United States of emboldened expression of hate and discrimination has evoked strong reactions for many people, and that individuals who identify as non-sexually conforming expressed feeling at increased risk ofexperiencing discrimination and minority stress since the 2016 presidential election. The quantitative analysis of the findings reflected alarmingly elevated rates of exposure to discriminatory attitudes, hate speech and violence among the respondents since 2016.

The presentations by the two speakers at this year’s Trauma Working Group meeting, the refugee crisis and the current socio-political climate in the USA, might seem like separate issues, but are also interrelated in many ways. Both speakers highlighted what amounts to a socio-cultural crisis and a critical time requiring an examination of the profound values of each of us individually, and of our society as a whole, with regard to our stance about the suffering Other. While refugees are the obvious “others”, Dr. Veldhuis’ research offers chilling evidence about the suffering of some individuals and groups who live among us and feel “othered” by political leaders, neighbors, or even family members. Some of the participants in the national survey reported that they chose to show their sexual preferences and sexual identity more openly, while others chose to “pass” as heterosexual, yet all experience the discriminatory attitudes and the dehumanization that they perceive around them.

We are all potentially “Other”, more visibly, more obviously, or less so. Some of us have a choice about how much of their “Otherness” will be revealed, others are even more vulnerable, as they have less of a choice. As Dr. Veldhuis’ findings show, as well as the data from the Antidefamation League which monitors hate crimes against Jewish institutions and individuals in the USA, our differences have become much more dangerous to show. It is perhaps even more painful to behold these negative trends because of the progress that has been achieved over the recent decades in legislation as well as in general social attitudes in the direction of greater social justice for all.

As the daughter of two Holocaust survivors I can attest to the piercing disappointment I feel when age-old antisemitic accusations are voiced in the political area as if no time has passed since the 1930’s in Germany, or when violence against Jewish Institutions and individuals is reported almost regularly in the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave”, to which some of my people and many other persecuted minorities fled from their homelands. The distinguished speaker, Dr. Orfanos, shared that he is the child of immigrants, as were my parents, who survived the horrendous Holocaust in Europe, and lost almost every single family member. My parents spent almost two years in Displaced Persons Camp, much like the refugee centers we see today all over the globe, housing thousands of traumatized, uprooted people seeking a new home. My parents lost the future they were supposed to have and arrived penniless and without proper clothing in a new country, then-Palestine, right into another war.

Our different heritages of trauma must not be destructive, divisive forces, but must rather be channeled into empathy, social and political activism, and awareness to the suffering of others in our midst. Their pain calls for a response. Dr. Orfanos and his humanitarian work exemplify some of the ways in which we can use our professional expertise and foster collaborations with other professionals, to actively engage with massive social trauma. Dr. Veldhuis and her colleagues report that their participants found a way to support their hope and empowerment despite the fear of rollback of rights and in the face of rising threat of discrimination and hate. The participants, who represent some of the most vulnerable groups in the USA, felt that individual agency, recognition of support from others, and political engagement and collective action, helped them maintain their personal sense of hopefulness and feel empowered. These findings hold true for all of us, who feel discouraged by the current political realities and socio-cultural climate. The NGO on Mental Health and the Trauma Working Group are always hoping to grow their membership and to be able to increase their influence by creating meaningful programs and making the meetings open to UN representatives and others. If you wish to join the Trauma Working Group, please contact the co-convener, Dr. Irit Felsen, at Irit.felsen@gmail.comor go to the website at

Irit Felsen, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of trauma and traumatic loss. She is an Adjunct Professor at Yeshiva University and she maintains a private practice in NJ including individual and couple therapy. Dr. Felsen is co-convener of the Trauma Working Group of the NGO committee on Mental Health in Consultative relationship with the United Nations and a researcher with the Yale University Trauma Study Group, Genocide Studies Program. Dr. Felsen’s interests are long-term effects of trauma on survivors, the impact of trauma on couple relationships, intergenerational transmission, and dehumanization in healthcare.