From post-traumatic stress disorder to cultural bereavement: Diagnosis of Southeast Asian refugees

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There are pitfalls in the singular application of western categories in diagnosing psychiatric disorders and distress among refugees. Based on my research with Cambodian refugees I argue that cultural bereavement, by mapping the subjective experience of refugees, gives meaning to the refugee's distress, clarifies the 'structure' of the person's reactions to loss, frames psychiatric disorder in some refugees, and complements the psychiatric diagnosis categories. Cultural bereavement includes the refugees' picture-what the trauma meant to them; their cultural recipes for signalling their distress; and their cultural strategies for overcoming it-and the cultural interpretation of symptoms commonly found among refugees that resemble post-traumatic stress disorder. Cultural bereavement may identify those people who have post-traumatic stress disorder on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) criteria but whose 'condition' is a sign of normal, even constructive, rehabilitation from devastatingly traumatic experiences. Cultural bereavement should be given appropriate status in the nosology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)673-680
Number of pages8
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 1991
Externally publishedYes


  • cultural bereavement
  • DSM
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • refugees

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