Pouring Salt on the Wound: Psychologists Identify the Effects of 'Institutional Betrayal'

Originally published at the Huffington Post.

Women exposed to sexual assault in the military suffer more trauma-related symptoms than female veterans sexually assaulted in civilian life. Children abused only in residential care settings are more likely to have difficulties as adults than children who were abused only at home.
Those are the findings from two studies that have helped define the role of "institutional betrayal" in the experience of traumatic stress.
Summarizing the literature in the September edition of the American Psychologist(the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association), Carly Parnitze Smith and Jennifer J. Freyd state conclusively that institutional attitudes, priorities and behaviors significantly influence the development of post-traumatic distress.
To illustrate their point, Smith and Freyd tell the story of Lizzy Seeberg, a 19-year-old student who committed suicide 10 days after reporting that she had been sexually assaulted by another student. It was not the alleged rape that caused her despair. It was the response from the university and the community that let her down.
In their research with trauma victims (mostly sexual assault), the authors measured the occurrence of betrayal events and found a consistent association with trauma-related outcomes and symptoms of greater severity.
Institutional betrayal can involve acts of both omission and commission. Retaliation is the most obvious act of commission. A person complains and suddenly the organization turns hostile.
Passive forms of betrayal include institutional tolerance for bad acts, investigations lacking transparency, untimely complaint resolution, inadequate or inconsistent sanctions, and other forms of effective indifference. Filing a complaint carries the risk that you will be doubted, blamed, refused help and denied protection. People take that risk because they trust the institution to "fix it and make it right."
In closed systems (e.g., in universities, the military, churches, corporations, prisons and the NFL), that too often does not occur.
Betrayal can involve acting badly or not acting at all, and it can also vary in terms of whether it is "apparently isolated" or "apparently systemic."
Ambiguity arises when incidents are perceived as solitary, isolated events, "out of character" for a member of the institution. It becomes the football player (or coach) against the coed, the complaint dismissed under the rubric of "it's a he-said she-said." In the case of Lizzy Seeberg, the football player was not questioned until weeks later. From her perspective, it was a case of "she-said-and-nobody-listened."
Institutional betrayal is potent because it represents a profound and fundamental violation of trust in a necessary dependency relationship. In that sense, it is similar to abuse in close relationships - it can be more harmful than abuse by a stranger. The breach of trust, the unreciprocated loyalty, and the exposure to retaliation are like a knife in the back.
Bound to an institution by enlistment, enrollment or employment, victims remain vulnerable while they cope. The coping most typically involves repression and denial, and other anxiety-based disturbances in awareness and memory. According to Smith and Freyd, these adaptive strategies "allow for the maintenance of necessary relationships (even abusive ones) in a way that supports attachment behaviors."
People are attached and dependent on the organization. They may not want to quit their job, quit school, leave the church or go AWOL. This is especially true when the affiliation is an essential element of the individual's identity. You are no longer a professor or a student if you leave the university and no longer a soldier if you choose discharge.
Betrayal events are more likely to occur in institutions of a common character.
The risk features involve power, privilege and prestige, the value placed on group membership, the prioritization of group loyalty, the impulse to protect an image, and an institutional sense of righteousness and entitlement. Penn State is given as an example -- the impulse was to protect the predator to preserve power and prestige.
Families holding incest and abuse secrets are of a relatively similar character. In both cases, blame and recrimination is commonly directed at the abuse victim, the person who disrupted the system.
Anthropologist Janice Harper has observed similar retaliation dynamics in both modern workplaces and indigenous tribal cultures. To describe how groups betray those who complain, Harper uses the terms shunning, shaming and mobbing.
Institutional betrayal is a term for a persistent and pervasive factor in the abuse-trauma-distress equation and the process of secondary victimization. Too often, instead of choosing to make things right, institutions react by pouring salt on the wounds and adding insult to injury.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.