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close this bookWIT's World Ecology Report - Vol. 08, No. 3 - Critical Issues in Health and the Environment (WIT, 1996, 16 pages)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPublic Health and Environmental Policies in Brazil
View the documentSchistosomiasis in Egypt: Past-Present-Future
View the documentHealth and Environment From War to Recovery: The Case of Lebanon
View the documentEnvironmental Health Impact Assessment on Development Activities
View the documentRemarks of H.E. Yuri Shcherbak, Ambassador of Ukraine to the U.S. on the Tenth Anniversary of Chernobyl, April 26th, 1996
View the documentInfectious Diseases and Climate Change
View the documentCancer and the Human Environment
View the documentThe Relationship Between Diet and Chronic Diseases
View the documentPsychological Factors and Environmental Health
View the documentPoint of View

Psychological Factors and Environmental Health

Vamik Volkan, M.D., Director, Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction, University of Virginia, School of Medicine, Charlottesville, VA.

In 1949, an American Psychiatric Association document referred to war as a plague, a public health problem, and declared that "unusual psychological factors" were contributing to the international tensions that were felt. In spite of this statement, no serious and searching study was carried out to understand these psychological factors. Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in the late 1970s brought about a change, for during his speech at the Israel Knesset, he declared that 70% of the problems between the Arabs and Israelis were psychological. This event initiated a series of unofficial meetings held between 1980 and 1985 among influential Egyptians, Israelis and Palestinians as well as Americans. Psychoanalysts, psychiatrists and psychologists joined individuals from different backgrounds in participating in these meetings. Following these events, the Center for the Study of the Mind and Human Interaction, with an interdisciplinary faculty, was established under the auspices of the University of Virginian's Medical School. Psychoanalysts and psychiatrists have worked closely with diplomats, historians and theologians to actively involve opposing groups from around the world in studying and defining ethnicity and the psychological factors underlying ethnic conflicts. They have also developed techniques aimed at the removal of psychological impediments to the peace process. Since these activities are perceived as "preventative medicine," the Center has remained under the auspices of the Medical School.

Ethnic conflicts are spreading like an "infection." The "germ" is found in the collective minds of large communities, such as ethnic groups. The more an ethnic conflict becomes chronic, the more it becomes psychologized. Above and beyond real world issues, such as economic, legal, military and environmental issues, psychological factors, as an "unseen" power, play a major role in international relationships.

Think in terms of learning, from childhood on, to wear two layers of clothing. The first garment, which belongs just to the individual who is wearing it, fits snugly. The second set of clothes, the ethnic layer, is a loose covering that protects like a mother of other caregivers. At the same time, because the garment is not form-fitting, it shelters many individuals under it as though it were one big canvas tent. As long as the tent remains stable and strong, the members of the group can go about their lives without paying much attention to it. If the tent is disturbed or shaken, however, this attracts more notice, and all the individuals under the tent collectively become preoccupied with trying to make the tent strong again. At this point, rituals that maintain a balance of relationships between "us" and "them" become more prominent and more observable. This phenomenon contributes to the disintegration of society and its environment.

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