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Terrorism: Answers from the Survivors’ Assistance Network

July 28, 2016 | Nick Taylor

By Terry O’Hara – Project Manager, Survivors’ Assistance Network (SAN)

Yesterday I was approached by a German journalist yesterday for comment on the current situation. She asked me a series of interesting questions about the impact and outcomes of terrorism which I thought worth sharing.

How does a terror attack affect the inhabitants of a city, a country?

Horrific attacks take place with sad regularity in places such as; Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria – it is in those lands where the vast majority of terrorist incidents occur. During the past week 292 people have been killed in Baghdad, and at least 44 people died during a bombing in Qamishli, Syria. But thankfully, despite how it may be depicted by the media, for most of us in the west, terrorism is still a relatively rare crime.

The difference between a terrorist attack and any other violent crime is that the principal target is not just the individual who is killed, injured or traumatised; the target is a way of life or society itself. Terrorist attacks (and the reporting of them) spread fear, anxiety and a feeling of helplessness amongst the population, and this is exacerbated by the spread of social media. A consequence of this may be the growth of fear, suspicion and distrust between different groups within the community, which can lead to intolerance, at best, and violent hate crime at worst.

Demands on the state to crack down using the police and security services are fuelled by the climate of fear, which in turn can cause some individuals to identify with extremist ideologies. The climate of fear is fed and grows, and so violence can become more likely. Terrorist attacks on soft targets such as public events, iconic sites and holiday destinations also have a devastating and lasting effect on the local economy

Sometimes a positive effect can arise from an attack in that communities can unite and individuals are motivated to do cross-community work to demonstrate that the terrorists will not defeat them. In Warrington after the 1993 IRA bomb that killed Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball, Colin and Wendy Parry were moved to found the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace to build peace and resolve conflict.

The survivors and the victims’ relatives are traumatized – what do we exactly understand by trauma?

The Survivors Assistance Network (SAN) at the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace works to provide practical and emotional support for people affected by terrorism. We work with a nurse and academic who is a Mental Health and Traumatic Bereavement specialist to ensure that we understand the needs of each individual, and that people are accessing appropriate support form statutory and non-statutory agencies.

Trauma in this context is when the scale of an event or events overwhelms a person’s normal coping abilities. The understanding of trauma is growing all the time, and there is a significant body of clinical research going back to the mid-20th century and beyond.

What do these people go through?

It is important to remember that between 5% and 25% of people experiencing a trauma will have normal reactions to what is an abnormal event in their lives, and they will not go on to develop PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), but everyone is different. It is an individual’s ‘subjective experience’ that determines whether or not an event is traumatic. Two people with a similar experience may react completely differently. Equally someone who appears to have coped with an incident without any problems may, later in life (perhaps when some other life event happens such as bereavement, divorce, unemployment, etc.) suddenly find that, years later, the initial trauma suddenly becomes an issue.

People who have witnessed or been involved in a terrorist attack may experience an acute stress reaction. This might involve intrusive thoughts about the incident going over and over in their head. Some may not leave the house at all and many will become ‘hyper vigilant’ – afraid of everything around them, and normal daily routines and everyday functioning may stop. Many will experience ‘survivor guilt’: “If only I could have done more.”; “Why did I survive?”. There is often an overwhelming sense of loss and a feeling that you are no longer control your own life. Many will struggle to put their feelings into words.

How can this trauma or this hurt be healed?

There is good evidence to support the use of talking therapies to help people to cope and recover from trauma and, although careful use of medication can play a useful part in managing depression, anxiety and other symptoms, the evidence for drug therapies for PTSD is limited. When PTSD is diagnosed along with depression or suicidal thoughts (for example) it is recommended that treatment should focus on the PTSD as the other conditions often subside with effective PTSD treatment.

There is often a strong demand for counselling in the immediate aftermath of an incident however the experience of the Survivors Assistance Network (supported by clinical guidance) is that immediately after a trauma, it is often enough to provide practical support and to listen and acknowledge the individual’s experience while they process what they have been through.

How can one help people traumatized by the attacks?

Over the years that SAN has been working with survivors, we have noticed that there is often a desire to make positive use of the terrible experience for the greater good. The Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace facilitates this by allowing survivors to talk about their experience at Foundation events (under SAN care). By describing how it was for them, they help to educate professionals responsible for emergency response planning (police, fire service, health authorities, local government etc.). They may also speak at Foundation programmes such as ‘THINK’ and ‘Extreme Dialogue’, addressing young people at risk of radicalisation, and communities where the likelihood of conflict is high.

People who want to help those traumatised by attacks need to be patient and supportive, and show understanding to the anxious, giving them time to process their thoughts. There is a need for greater ‘Trauma Awareness’ amongst professionals. People often feel let down when they meet a doctor, counsellor or other professional who has no idea what it is like to go through a terrorist incident. This is understandable as these incidents are so rare – a family doctor may work for 30 years and never see such a case. This is why the Survivors Assistance Network provides training for professionals.

How can everybody else – who has not directly been affected by the attacks – deal with the fear that such attacks create?

I think there is a need to remain vigilant but to maintain a sense of perspective. These incidents are rare but not unknown and, clearly, some places are more at risk than others. Listen to Government and police advice and having taken sensible precautions, it is important to live life as normally as possible and not to let this potential threat colour your view of whole communities. Stand up against those who try to use this climate of fear to target other groups – that is what the terrorists want; don’t do the terrorists work for them.

Terry O’Hara – Project Manager, Survivors Assistance Network