Skip main navigation

Common psychological signs of torture

Common psychological signs of torture

What symptoms or signs in a patient should make you as a health professional alert to the possibility that a patient may have experienced torture?

The symptoms and signs of torture are not specific to torture. It is also helpful to keep in mind that the psychological consequences of torture occur in the context of the individual torture survivor’s personality, personal attribution of meaning, and social, political and cultural factors. Common psychological symptoms include:

  • Hyperarousal: Difficulty falling or staying asleep; Irritability or outbursts of anger; Difficulty concentrating; Hypervigilance (exaggerated startled response);
  • Anxiety, either generalised or specific anxieties
  • Avoidance, emotional numbing, detachment, withdrawal
  • Low mood, depression
  • Paranoia
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Psychosomatic symptoms – generalised weakness, abdominal discomfort, headaches, nausea
  • Dissociation, depersonalization and atypical behaviour
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Mistrust, fear, shame, rage and guilt, particularly when being asked to recount or remember details of their trauma.
  • Errors of recall – this should not be assumed to be an indicator of a falsified testimony. Research has shown discrepancies in recalling traumatic events, commonly blanking out particularly awful details and distorting perceptions of time and place. Torture survivors may also have difficulties recounting specific details as a result of blindfolding or drugging, fear of endangering themselves or others, a lack of trust between the clinician and patient, depression, or neuropsychiatric impairment from suffocation or a blow to the head.
  • Culture-specific syndromes and ideally clinicians should have knowledge of the victim’s culture. Where they don’t, assistance of an interpreter who does is essential.

Source: Cohen, 2001; Medical Justice, 2002; REDRESS, 2004; UN, 1999.

This article is from the free online

Addressing Violence Through Patient Care

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education