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Conducting the Psychological Evaluation

Psychological evaluations may take place in a variety of settings and contexts; as a result, there are important differences in the manner in which evaluations should be conducted and how symptoms will be interpreted. For example, whether or not certain sensitive questions can be asked safely will depend on the degree to which confidentiality and security can be assured. An evaluation by a clinician visiting a prison or detention centre may be very brief and not allow for as detailed an evaluation as one performed in a clinic or private office that may take place over several sessions and last for several hours. At times some symptoms and behaviours typically viewed as pathological may be viewed as adaptive or predictable, depending on the context. For example, diminished interest in activities, feelings of detachment and estrangement would be understandable findings in a person in solitary confinement. Likewise, hypervigilance and avoidance behaviours may be necessary for those living under threat in repressive societies.

The clinician should attempt to understand mental suffering in the context of the survivor’s circumstances, beliefs, and cultural norms rather than rush to diagnose and classify. Awareness of culture specific syndromes and native language-bound idioms of distress is of paramount importance for conducting the interview and formulating the clinical impression and conclusion. When the interviewer has little or no knowledge about the alleged victim’s language and culture, the assistance of an interpreter is essential. An interpreter from the alleged victim’s country of origin will facilitate an understanding of the language, customs, religious traditions, and other beliefs that will need to be considered during the evaluation.

Clinicians should be aware of the potential emotional reactions that evaluations may elicit in survivors (see Transference and Counter-transference [3] [1] in Module 3). Fear, shame, rage and guilt are typical reactions. A clinical interview may induce mistrust on the part of the torture survivor and possibly remind him or her of previous interrogations thereby “re-traumatizing” him or her. To reduce the effects of re-traumatisation, the clinician should communicate a sense of empathy and understanding. A torture survivor may suspect the clinician of having voyeuristic and sadistic motivations or may have prejudices towards the clinician because he/she hasn’t been tortured. The clinician is a person in a position of authority and, for that reason, may not be trusted with certain aspects of the trauma history. Alternatively, individuals still in custody may be too trusting in situations where the clinician cannot guarantee that there will be no reprisals for speaking about torture. Torture victims may fear that information that is revealed in the context of an evaluation cannot be safely kept from being accessed by persecuting governments. Fear and mistrust may be particularly strong in cases where physicians or other health workers were participants in the torture. In the context of evaluations conducted for legal purposes, the necessary attention to details and the precise questioning about history is easily perceived as a sign of doubt on the part of the examiner. Under these pressures, survivors may feel overwhelmed with memories and affect or mobilize strong defences such as withdrawal, affective flattening or numbing during evaluations.

As mentioned in Module 3 [2], if the gender of the clinician and the torturer is the same, the interview situation may be perceived as resembling the torture more than if the genders were different. For example, a woman who was raped and tortured in prison by a male guard is likely to experience more distress, mistrust, and fear when facing a male clinician than she might experience with a female. On the other hand, it may be much more important to the survivor that the interviewer is a physician regardless of gender so as to ask specific medical questions about possible pregnancy, ability to conceive later, and future of sexual relations between spouses.

When listening to individuals speak of their torture, clinicians should expect to have personal reactions and emotional responses themselves (see Transference and Counter-transference [3] [1] in Module 3). Understanding these personal reactions is crucial because they can have an impact on one’s ability to evaluate and address the physical and psychological consequences of torture. Reactions may include avoidance and defensive indifference in reaction to being exposed to disturbing material, disillusionment, helplessness, hopelessness that may lead to symptoms of depression or “vicarious traumatisation,” grandiosity or feeling that one is the last hope for the survivor’s recovery and well-being, feelings of insecurity in one’s professional skills in the face of extreme suffering, guilt over not sharing the torture survivor’s experience, or even anger when the clinician experiences doubt about the truth of the alleged torture history and the individual stands to benefit from an evaluation.