Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Trauma and Traumatic Stress among Missionaries

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Trauma and Traumatic Stress among Missionaries

Article excerpt

Research was conducted to determine the extent and nature of traumatic events experienced by missionaries and the extent to which missionaries reported Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms due to traumatic exposure on the mission field. Ninety-four percent of missionaries reported having been exposed to trauma on the field, with 86% reporting exposure to multiple incidents. This was considerably higher than their exposure when off the field and could be attributed primarily to an increased risk of exposure to civil unrest and violent crime. Less than half of the missionaries reported symptoms at a level necessary for a diagnosis of PTSD at their most difficult period of adjustment to their most distressing traumatic experience. No missionaries reported current symptoms at a level necessary for a diagnosis of PTSD. The data suggests that missionaries from North America have a greater resilience to trauma than is found in the general North American population.

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In 1993, Miersma drew parallels between the experiences of Vietnam veterans dealing with the trauma and stress of combat and the experiences of missionaries dealing with trauma and stress in missionary life. Miersma concluded that research conducted with combat veterans could provide guidance to missionaries and mission agencies to help "reduce the impact of stress for missionaries both at the prefield and on-the-field level of experience" (1993, p. 95).

Many American soldiers who fought in Vietnam returned home with deep psychological wounds. The prevailing wisdom of the time was that they were suffering from "shell shock" or "combat fatigue," and if given space and time, their mental wounds would soon heal and life would return to normal. Unfortunately, that was not the case for many. The struggle of veterans led the psychological community to reexamine the impact of overwhelming traumatic experiences on individuals. Thus, in 1980, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd Edition (DSM-III) listed Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a diagnosable disorder.

Early research into PTSD focused primarily on combat veterans. However, soon it was recognized that many people who had never been in combat but who had experienced significant trauma were liable to experience the same symptoms of PTSD as the combat veterans. For example, studies made of rape victims (e.g., Foa, Rothbaum, Riggs, & Murdock, 1991), assault victims (e.g., Foa et al., 1999), armed robbery victims (e.g., Harrison & Kinner, 1998), motor vehicle accident victims (e.g., Ursano et al., 1999), and victims of natural disasters (e.g., Beck & Franke, 1996) revealed similar response patterns to those observed in combat veterans.

Researchers also began to identify certain populations at high risk for the development of PTSD. At-risk populations not only included combat soldiers (Mamar et al., 1994), but also groups such as law enforcement officers (Harvey-Lintz & Tidwell, 1997), firefighters (Wagner, Heinrichs, & Ehlart, 1998), disaster workers (Fullerton & Ursano, 1997), nurses (Clark & Gioro, 1998), and international relief and development workers (Eriksson, 1997). The obvious commonality between these high risk groups is that their members are frequently exposed to dangerous or even life threatening situations, or that they are part of a profession that works closely with trauma victims (Clark & Gioro, 1998; Cornille & Meyers, 1999; Figley, 1995a).

Psychologists working with missionaries warn that missionaries fir the profile of a high risk group. Goode (1995) warns that, "As the missionary community continues to focus upon unreached peoples, continued exposure to life-threatening, crisis situations can be expected" (p. 211). Grant (1995) makes the following observation: "Being a missionary can be very dangerous.... Overseas ministry can be peppered with years of direct experience with an exposure to crime, psychological intimidation, military and terrorist threats, kidnappings, armed coercion, torture, rape and murder. …

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