About Me

My photo
My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Perceived Social Support: A Lesson from Lara Logan's Interview

As some of you know, I'm both a sociologist of mental health and a journalism junkie.  A few of you may even know I'm working on two books, one a co-edited (with my husband) volume on immigration and the other on the sociology of mob violence.  These three things have come together, in the most unexpected of ways, in the past few months, with the publicity and news surrounding Lara Logan's horrendous assault in Egypt and the gang rape of Iman al-Obeidy by Qaddafi forces in Libya.    Both women have shown INCREDIBLE courage in telling their stories publicly.  One, because she was able to escape and go home, has been the rather lucky recipient of a great deal of support -- medical care, letters from strangers, notes from colleagues, pictures drawn by school children, stories shared by other women, notes from soldiers, even a phone call from  President Obama.  The other, however, has been denied the most basic human right of going home and, according to the Free Iman al-Obeidy Facebook page,  has suffered greatly by being denied that access to her support system.

Last night, like millions of others, I watched Lara Logan's interview on 60 Minutes.  Having followed the story carefully, I have to say I wasn't all that surprised by the details.  My first clues to the severity of the assault were actually in the original CBS news statement itself:  brutal and sustained sexual assault, on next flight out of the country, four days in a hospital.  You don't have to be a mind reader or a genius to have figured out that it was a horrible, possibly life-threatening assault.  Nobody -- least of all a war correspondent with 18 years experience working in the most war-torn places on the globe -- leaves a foreign country in the midst of celebration  for something minor.  Nobody -- even somebody with means -- spends four days in a hospital for the trivial.  Hospitals just don't do that anymore.  Nonetheless, hearing her tell her own story and seeing her tears made my heart race, my body turn cold, my tears flow.  I wish I could do more for her than simply leave the notes of support that I (like hundred of others) have left on her official Facebook page.

In some ways, however, the part of the interview available online at 60 Minutes Overtime was actually the more heart-wrenching.  Logan emphasized in that segment exactly how grateful she was for all the letters and cards she has received.  She, unlike so many other victims of similarly horrible crimes, has tangible evidence that people care.  Not just that her immediate family and friends care, but that strangers care.  How unbelievably wonderful.  Though Iman reportedly knows that she, too, has supporters, it is unlikely that she has the same amount of tangible evidence that people are on her side.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if all victims of violence could receive abundant evidence that people care?

Conveniently for me, I was already scheduled to lecture today on perceived social support.  I used a portion of Logan's 60 Minutes Overtime segment in my lecture; the students were silent and clearly moved.  The segment made the point:  perceived social support matters.  Various sociological studies have shown that it is perceived social support that matters most to people's mental health -- even more than tangible supports that are more easily measured (such as how often people make meals for you or take care of your children).  Those who perceive they have more support are better at coping, more apt to seek help if they need it, and have lower rates of both mental and physical health problems.  Those with higher levels of perceived social support also report what psychologists call post traumatic growth -- a trend among trauma survivors to report (in retrospect and only after much time has passed) that there was something good that came out of their healing.

We cannot make the traumas go away.  We cannot make the traumas themselves "good".  The traumas always will be indescribably evil and horrifying and they tend to stay with people in some way or another.  But we can, by supporting each other, make it possible for people not only to survive a trauma, but to thrive afterward.

Logan has said she does not want this assault to define her.  Of course not.  And of course it doesn't.  She, like all survivors, is so much more than what she survived.  She's an amazing reporter.  An incredibly brave, honest, intelligent woman.  Somebody who by her courage and brutal honesty has managed to launch herself into my pantheon of heroes.

And now, for those of us who are her fans, it's up to us to do two things:  continue to show her our support for as long as she needs it (these traumas don't disappear very fast, I'm told), and keep our promise to her that we won't define her by this event.  We might define her by her bravery, however.  But I think she'd be OK with that.

And we owe Iman the same thing -- to define her by her strength and not by her victimization.  All survivors of the unimaginable are due this.

Got a little free time today?  Drop a card to somebody.  Remind them how strong they are. Remind them that they are loved. Such things matter.

It's the least we can do.
Suggested Readings:

1.  Thoits, Peggy. 2011.  Perceived social support and the voluntary, mixed or pressured use of mental health services.  Society and Mental Health 1 (1):  4-19.

2.  Joseph, Stephen and Linley, Alex P. 2008.  Trauma, Recovery and Growth:  Positive Psychological Perspectives on Posttraumatic Stress.  New York, NY:  Wiley.

3.  Lian, Tam Cai. YEAR.  Perceived social support, coping capability and gender differences among young adults.  Sunway Academic Journal 6:  75-88.

4.  Cadzow, Renee B. and Servoss, Timothy J.  2009.  The association between perceived social support and health among patients at a free urban clinic.  Journal of the National Medical Association 101(3):  243-250.

5.  Wethington, E. and Kessler, R.C..  1986.  Perceived support, received support, and adjustment to stressful life events.  Journal of Health and Social Behavior 27:  78-89.

6.  House, J.S.  1981. Work Stress and Social Support.  Reading, MA:  Addison-Wesley.

7.  Vaux, A. 1988.  Social Support:  Theory, Research and Intervention.   New York:  Praeger.

8.  Turner, R.J. and Lloyd, D.A.  1995.  Lifetime traumas and mental health:  The significance of cumulative adversity.  Journal of Health and Social Behavior 36:  360-376.

9.  Turner, R.J., Wheaton, B., and Lloyd, D.A.  1995.  The epidemiology of stress.  American Sociological Review 60:  104-125.


  1. thanks for this post.

  2. Elaine, this is beautiful. As a journalist and public relations professional, I am fascinated by sociology, so maybe that's why we connected on Twitter. Now that I'm teaching I'm even more fascinated by human behavior. This is amazing, and I will definitely be following your advice to let someone know they've got my support today--starting with the brave Lara Logan. Like you I was moved by her interview--and by Scott Pelly's part in it too. I won't let anyone define her by this assault--she will be a better reporter for this and I look forward to seeing her work on TV in the future.

    I don't think the average person knows what journalists go through to keep the free flow of information flowing. My colleague just lost two dear friends--photojournalists Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington--in Libya, and stories like that always bring home to us that the profession we're in has danger attached. I've seen Thorne's photos from Afghanistan, and he was under fire along with the troops--only he was shooting with a camera, not a gun, so we can know what's going on. Even in PR we can be attacked by people who oppose our organization or cause.

    Thanks for a great post. You've inspired me--I need to blog more, too.

  3. Since I first heard what happened to CBS chief correspondent Lara Logan in February, it's been difficult for me to focus on anything else. I'm sure I'd be just as shocked and captivated if such an assault happened to anyone else, especially someone in the public eye like a reporter, but I wouldn't care so deeply if she were not someone I really valued (both for her work and for her spirit). It was evident from her first report (the first I saw, anyway) that journalism was her life's passion. Cutting her teeth in the South African Apartheid, she'd long been a crusader, someone in it to make a difference, by the time she became a household name to British and American audiences.

    I had, long ago, seen her reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan and I remember thinking she had a lot of guts. More recently, I'd seen her on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and she really seemed to be sincere about her passion for uncovering the truth, shining a light on the causes of the suffering in occupied territories and bringing attention to what the troops were experiencing in war zones. She was real. I saw her as an idealist. I remember deciding that I liked her. After seeing her on The Daily Show, I remember saying it out loud (that I liked her).

    Upon hearing the announcement CBS made concerning the attack, most of my time online became devoted to an effort to uncover the truth about what really happened to her in Egypt. I wanted to know who did this. I wanted to understand what she went through. I wanted to know how likely it would be that she'd recover and have a normal life again. I soon found myself sticking up for her in comment streams attached to articles and blog posts and forums. I used my experience as an Internet "troll" and my academic training in research/analysis/writing to defend her against those blaming the victim, those accusing her of sensationalizing the story, the racists and the perverts and the conspiracy theory nuts, against those trying taking advantage of the incident to advance their own political agendas. I don't know if I made a difference. I'm not even sure my impact was always positive (though my intentions were good) but I hope I was able to help in some small way as a citizen advocate.

    Now that she's spoken out herself, something she'd planned on doing right from the start, I think, nothing people say about her can contend with her own very passionate personal testimony. She's been so brave coming forward. It's something people will respect forever. She certainly has my admiration.

  4. Love it - especially how you talked about perceived support - I have been quite isolated myself and had to reach out and have found so much support via the online community that it encouraged me to reach out to the actual community here - people heal faster when they know they can get help, but isolation and feeling 'you're the only one' is what kills. I tried highlighting some of Lara's previous and current work at this time so people get to know how amazing she is.

  5. Thanks, Louise, Samra, John and Giovanna for your comments.

    Louise -- Your comment reminded me that we live in such a culture of independence and that, in our increasingly mobile world, we are often separated from our support systems at precisely the times when we most need them. You are surely not alone in having found comfort in an online community -- and thank God for that! -- but as you appear to have discovered, face-to-face support is also crucial. We're wired to need others; virtual reality can only go so far in filling that need.

  6. Yes exactly! Everything is interdependent. I needed others but couldn't ask for help for a long time as I suffered the after effects of a lot of trauma. Tentatively seeking help online proved to offer a huge amount of encouragement. I think such help is mirrored in real time too, but we're conditioned (some of us) to not believe it. Plus it's frowned upon to ask for help! That certainly needs to change. Often I think people don't need a lot of help but if they don't get the little in the long run they may end up needing a lot. This is where a little goes a long way!

  7. That interview was difficult to watch. My heart was pounding so hard, I felt like it would break out of my chest and run off. The sheer savagery of the men who did this to her boggles the mind. Unfortunately, her assailants may never be brought to justice, and will probably continue to terrorize other women in Egypt. Very likely, neither will those of Eman al Obeidy or Mukhtaran Bibi (almost all of the latter's assailants have been recently released by the Pakistan Supreme Court).

    My take on this issue: http://sohandsouza.multiply.com/journal/item/150/Lara_Logan_the_Revolutionary

  8. Excellent blog, Sohan. I very much had the same emotional response you did to seeing Logan's interview (heart pounding, vision blurred by tears, etc.). I hope history will show that both Logan and al-Obeidy contributed mightily to a sea change in view of victims of sexual violence. We should all remember, however (I know you know this), that they are hardly the first brave women to come out publicly about their experiences with sexual violence. Another brave woman, who also experienced gang rape (hers by American men, employed by KBR/Halliburton and stationed in Iraq) was Jennifer Leigh Jones in 2005. If you go back and watch her 20/20 interview in 2007, you will notice how very brave she was/is, too. Something to unpack (I'm doing so in an article right now) is why some victims who speak out recieve support and attention and others do not.


Politeness is always appreciated.