Traumatized by the Legal System

March 29, 2012 by  


By Karin Friedemann, TMO

2353778Psychoanalyst Dr. Karin Huffer has recently published a book called Legal Abuse Syndrome. (LAS) is a newly coined sub-category of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is a psychic injury, not a mental illness. It is a personal injury that develops in the psyche of individuals assaulted by ethical violations, legal abuses, betrayals, and fraud within the court system. Huffner writes:

“A very critical part of the bankruptcy process doesn’t have anything to do with legal issues, reorganization plans, or creditors’ claims – it’s the mental health of the debtor.”

Huffner’s work advocates a mixture of negotiation and therapy with the aim of avoiding expensive court litigation. This can be necessary in cases where one or both parties have existing conditions such as adult autism or depression, where the divorce or foreclosure is stalled because of mental illness and noncooperation. Lawyers, often inappropriately used as therapists, need to know where to refer grieving debtors who have perhaps also lost their wife and family as well as their home, due to their inability to cope with their personal issues. Fluctuating job status often leads to psychological trauma.

Nancy Garbett, President of Transition Management, Inc., in Salt Lake City, Utah, says that open and honest communication with employees about the status of the company and the reorganization efforts is essential. “Employees need to understand what changes are occurring and what it means for them. If they are feeling insecure and stressed, they won’t perform at their maximum level and could hinder the company’s financial recovery.”

Huffer suggests the following eight steps for a debtor for dealing with depression and Legal Abuse Syndrome:

1.    DEBRIEFING. This is the process of going through everything that has happened, and requires an objective, patient, non-judgmental listener. Debriefing typically occurs when the debtor arrives in the attorney’s office with boxes of files and lengthy, complicated explanations of what has occurred to bring him or her to this point.

2.    GRIEVING. The debtor must take the time to grieve over what’s been lost, no matter how trivial or significant each element is.

3.    OBSESSION. Huffer says this is a natural attempt to regain control, and it’s important to acknowledge these feelings so that they can be managed. Left unchecked, they can be distracting and damaging.

4.    BLAMING. It’s common for debtors to look for a scapegoat or to severely castigate themselves for what’s happened. Learning to deal with blame is part of healing.

5.    DESHAMING. Huffer says this has to do with “putting your shame in the right place.” Debtors often feel that they lack control, and find that more embarrassing than if they had deliberately done something wrong.”You have business people who have wielded clout in their community for years who are in bankruptcy and suddenly they control nothing,” Huffer says. “They feel shame.” Debtors need to work through their feelings of inappropriate shame.

6.    REFRAMING. The first five steps lead to this, the beginning of recovery, where negative emotions are turned around. For example, an initial perception of “I should have seen it coming. How could I have been so stupid,” can be reframed to “I am not responsible for knowing everything. I am an intelligent person who cannot control other people or situations.”

7.    EMPOWERMENT. Once empowered, the debtor can focus his or her energy on surviving the bankruptcy, working through the reorganization and rebuilding his or her personal or professional lives.

8.    RECOVERY. In recovery, the debtor can be reaffirmed and re-enter the game of life.

As Muslims, most of us realize that when we borrow money, we have to pay it back, even if it means selling our property to do so. Nevertheless, having to do so has an obvious emotional toll. Especially when the question remains whether we would have ever repaid our debt without having been faced with some kind of legal consequence. Let us pay our debts and let God sort out the rest.
In any legal matter, when the honest party loses because the winning party has provided misinformation, there is a loss of justice and also the loss of confidence. In most divorces, a judge has seconds or at best, minutes to decide the fate of an entire family. The judgment is often based on the assertions of the more aggressive party, rather than the best interests of the children. But as they say all is fair in love and war.

If we think divorce or bankruptcy is hard, imagine being accused of “terrorism support,” a vague definition that includes cheering on the Palestinians or owning a DVD about the Last Days when Christ will return. Given the severity of the emotional consequences of injustice on individuals, it is pretty much unimaginable to even try to describe the level of traumatic stress suffered from victims of political discrimination. To be accused of a crime such as “terrorism” and to find your beloved community withdrawing from your association. To have to counter lie after lie takes far more effort than for the accuser inventing lies. In many cases, there is malicious psychological torture going on within the courtroom.

Since courtroom-caused traumatic stress is now validated as a clinical definition, it might be a good time for Psychology students and others to investigate the traumatic stress suffered by someone accused of a crime he did not commit, and the pain experienced by his dependents.

There must be better ways to deal with the problems so many of us are facing in the legal system.

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