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What is 'resignation syndrome'? Oscars doc legitimizes illness that affects only children of failed asylum seekers (yes, really)

Frank Furedi
Frank Furedi

is an author and social commentator is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Author of How Fear Works: The Culture of Fear in the 21st Century. Follow him on Twitter @Furedibyte

is an author and social commentator is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Author of How Fear Works: The Culture of Fear in the 21st Century. Follow him on Twitter @Furedibyte

What is 'resignation syndrome'? Oscars doc legitimizes illness that affects only children of failed asylum seekers (yes, really)
Some are skeptical about a new psychiatric condition found almost exclusively among children of rejected refugees in Sweden. But Hollywood is lapping it up, even if its coverage will only create more victims, real and imagined.

I am not surprised that the film ‘Life Overtakes Me’ has won an Oscar nomination for a documentary short. This film resonates with Western filmmakers’ – and activists’ – fascination with psychological problems, particularly those suffered by children.

Resignation syndrome is an almost-entirely mysterious condition that had never been diagnosed until the 1990s, and is not officially recognized anywhere outside of Sweden. To what extent it is physical, psychological or social is still being hotly debated in the pages of both medical journals and Scandinavian newspaper columns.

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The protagonists of ‘Life Overtakes Me’ are migrants – mostly born in Eastern Europe before moving to Sweden – who react to their parents failing to secure an extension of their asylum by rapidly retreating into a catatonic state, where they refuse to talk, or even open their eyes, and eventually appear to be in a permanent deep sleep or coma.

According to one sympathetic film critic, it is a story not unlike ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,’ where having fallen under the spell of the evil Queen, the beautiful Princess falls into a perpetual slumber.

The illness inflicted on the beautiful Princess can only be cured by the love of the handsome Prince. In contrast, the refugee children afflicted by resignation syndrome are only cured when their families are offered an official permit allowing them the right of residency in Sweden.

Like the Princess, the afflicted child magically wakes up when they hear family members read out good news about their residence.

‘Political diagnosis’

Now while the above may sound a little too convenient to some ears, I am not dismissing the validity of resignation syndrome out of hand (though Swedish state television SVT has reported that at least one of the children in the film had perpetrated a hoax at the bidding of her parents).

There is no doubt that, when confronted with unsettling and painful conditions, some children may withdraw from external reality. Shutting oneself off from the world serves as a defense mechanism adopted by some children, who cannot deal with the unsettling difficulties that confront them. Such reactions are quite understandable in the face of the experience of profound disappointment. It is therefore not surprising that this illness in Sweden is almost always linked to failed migration claims.

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In the first instance, the condition described as resignation syndrome should be interpreted as a sublimated expression of a child’s cry for help and attention. Like self-harming, the impulse to exert a degree of control over one’s circumstances is likely to be the main driver of the spread of this syndrome.

However, this syndrome is not simply a form of psychological illness. For all parties involved – the children, their parents, their case workers, and the immigration services – it is, the Australian psychiatrist Tanveer Ahmed contends, a “political diagnosis.”

Its framing, its very existence as a specific named condition, is an accomplishment of political advocacy as an outcome of psychological elaboration.

Little wonder that this condition has proved socially contagious, and has swiftly spread to other parts of the world where migrants are demanding refugee status.

Its more recent emergence amongst children whose parents are making migration claims to Australia from Nauru is an example of what Ahmed characterized as an ‘example of the globalization of refuge illness behavior.’

No doubt politically it makes a lot of sense for advocates of refugees to promote their cause by drawing attention to the suffering and trauma experienced by young children. Resignation syndrome dramatizes the extreme response of children to what for them are extreme conditions.

Not all publicity is good publicity

While I have every sympathy with children left in desperate circumstances thousands of miles away from their homeland, I am less charitable towards the motivations of the filmmakers.

Hollywood, like all professionals involved in the art of communication, knows that the very mention of the word ‘child’ will make people listen.

Raise the moral stake by claiming that children are ill and traumatized, and many of us will not just listen but endorse the demand that ‘something must be done.’

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Only the most heartless souls can remain indifferent to the plight of young children, frozen in time, perhaps not really alive at all.

The dramatization of children who have fallen into a coma-like state will unsettle the audience watching ‘Life Overtakes Me.’ It may even help more children to get their Swedish (or Australian) passports.

But if we really believe that resignation syndrome is not a hoax – as the documentary makers certainly purport to do – the tendency to medicalize the condition of children of migrant families may also unwittingly make the situation worse.

There is a danger that through drawing attention to this condition, it becomes normalized to the point of unwittingly inviting children to become ill. And perhaps much more severely ill than past victims.

There is already a tragic precedent for this.

The media’s dramatization of self-harm has contributed to its normalization, which has led to the proliferation of impressionable, susceptible children cutting themselves, again for real.

We need to be careful that our well-intentioned concern for refugees does not inadvertently create an environment hospitable to the explosion of resignation syndrome through the millions of child refugees worldwide.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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