War and Intimate Violence Top ISTSS Agenda

The impact of war on mental health and the implications of intimate violence are among the top items on the agenda for the 2010 annual meeting of the International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS).

What are the mental health implications of the war in Iraq on U.S. service personnel and their allies? What are the latest advances in diagnosing post-traumatic stress? How does the world respond to the impact of intimate violence – the suffering that results from domestic abuse, rape, violence against children, female infanticide, and other brutal practices?

These are some of the issues facing thousands of psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health researchers from around the world gathered this week in Montreal for the year's largest meeting of professionals dedicated to trauma treatment, education, research and prevention.

The 26th annual meeting of the International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies, held November 3-6, features a number of speakers and panel discussions of particular interest to journalists. 

The keynote speaker is Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, who in 1994 commanded the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). Dallaire has long worked to bring an understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder to the general public. His 2004 book, "Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda," was a response to the killings of 800,000 people in the 1993-94 Hutu-Tutsi genocide.  

"This book," Dallaire wrote at the time, "is a cri de coeur for the slaughtered thousands, a tribute to the souls hacked apart by machetes because of their supposed difference from those who sought to hang on to power... This book is the account of a few humans who were entrusted with the role of helping others taste the fruits of peace. Instead, we watched as the devil took control of paradise on earth and fed on the blood of the people we were supposed to protect."

Dallaire's address to ISTSS, titled "Injured, Not Sick," considers the experiences and needs of traumatized soldiers returning home in the wake of the war. 

Nontombi Naomi Tutu, activist and daughter of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, will also address the gathering on the link between violence in the home and violence in the wider world. 

Speaking on behalf of the Spiritual Alliance to Stop Intimate Violence, an organization founded by author and social scientist Riane Eisler, Tutu is expected to discuss research that shows that the brain neurochemistry of adults who grow up around violence and neglect is often optimized for flight-or-fight responses – and how victims of intimate violence are more prone to violent behavior and are at higher risk for depression and substance abuse.

Other presentations of interest to journalists and educators at the ISTSS gathering include sessions by Montreal clinician Pascal Brillon and others on the dreams and nightmares of returning soldiers struggling with post-traumatic stress. Brillon will discuss traumatized soldiers as they enter old age and the impact of their experiences on their wives and children. Compassion fatigue and other issues experienced by humanitarian aid workers and the rehabilitation of victims of torture are also on the agenda of the three-day conference. Therapists and researchers who work in hospital settings will devote several session to the treatment of medically traumatized children.

For the complete conference agenda, click here.