A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

The New Yorker features resignation syndrome

Pär SegerdahlLast year I wrote a post about resignation syndrome in children in families who are denied asylum in Sweden. I described a hypothesis about the syndrome suggested by Karl Sallin, PhD student at CRB in the field of neuroethics and neurophilosophy.

An intuitive explanation is that the syndrome is a reaction to prolonged stress and depression. A reaction that is triggered when the family is denied asylum. However, if the explanation is correct, the syndrome should exist on a similar scale also in other countries that receive refugee families. It seems it does not.

To understand what happens to these children, we should, Karl Sallin suggested, see it as a psychological reaction that occurs in the meeting between certain cultures and Swedish cultural conditions. For another peculiarity is the fact that the syndrome occurs mainly in families from certain parts of the world. We are dealing with a culture bound psychopathology, Sallin proposed in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

The New Yorker recently wrote about this “Swedish” syndrome, in a long article in which Karl Sallin interviewed.

The article contains a touching description of how one of these children falls ill when the family is denied asylum. For several months, he is confined to bed, not contactable, and he must be tube fed. When the family gets permanent residence, they try to convey this to the boy. After two weeks, he begins to open his eyes. After a further seven weeks, the nasal tube taped to his cheek falls out. Finally, he can return to school and begin to talk about the disease.

The article in The New Yorker emphasizes that the syndrome is a culture-bound psychopathology. However, the tendency seems to be to point out Sweden’s crumbling self-image as the relevant cultural context for the disease. We see “apathetic refugee children” as symbols of our own moral failure to treat them and their families humanely. Therefore, we tube feed them without further treatment, while waiting for the family to hopefully get their residence permit. This creates a culture where children become sick when their families are denied asylum.

This can hardly be the whole explanation, since it then becomes difficult to understand why mainly children from certain parts of the world are afflicted. Moreover, mainly children who come together with their families, rather than unaccompanied refugee children. The cultural dynamics seems to be more complex than the desire to find scapegoats for the syndrome can handle.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

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  1. Heather Formaini

    Thank you very much for this piece.
    I am presently working on ‘learned helplessness’ in Roma families in Europe, when their children have been taken into care by the State.
    It is my view that Roma parents suffer from something which, if not exactly ‘resignatin syndrome’, then something very much like it.
    My observations suggest that they give up eating and drinking, and begin to fade into their bodies.

    • Pär Segerdahl

      Thank you for this comment, your observations should be of great interest for researchers in Sweden!

  2. Anonymous Please

    Actually the article said clearly that culturally unique and yet similar expressions of dismay have happened in the USA with Laotian and Cambodian refugees. The NYer article shows me that it won’t matter if we all become secularists or atheists, that humans use moral symbolism to understand the world. Until we are prepared to give up all morality, we will not be able to clearly scientifically see. And perhaps it’s best that we don’t give it up, but accept and respect eachother’s morals or culture. Those children spent most of their lives assimilating into a culture that later rejected them. It’s the worst kind of ostracism.

    However, with record numbers of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome / Myalgic Encephalomyelitis patients, a disease whose investigation has been systematically thwarted in both the UK and the USA, it could be that they also suffer from a physical ailment that waits until stress disables the immune system. Since many of the “ubiquitous and normal” viruses that humans have affect the brain and nervous system, all it takes is an extended stress to produce such an effect. It’s unfortunate that the Swedes have turned this into a moral symbol, and refuse to look at any organic support mechanism for the illness.

    The article talks about the origin of the kids, but does not give statistics to put it in context. What if it’s just that 90% of refugees are from those parts of the world, and so it only looks like their origin is a connection. Further, I disagree that this is some kind of learned helplessness. Where you see learned helplessness I see a healthy high-context culture. These kids understand that we are all interconnected. Only a product of a nuclear family can imagine that we are independent of each other. It’s not a revelation to these kids that people depend on each other.

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