Terrorism and its impact on mental health
Lenin said the object of terror is to terrorize. Sun Tzu said kill one to terrorize 10,000. Someone else, possibly Nietzsche, said fear is the absence of power. On December 15, 2015, the Los Angeles School District superintendent closed 900 schools with an enrollment of more than 600,000 students because of an email which threatened violence against students at unidentified schools in the district. Perhaps Lenin got it wrong. Perhaps the object of terror is to instill a nameless foreboding which wears down a person’s resiliency and replaces it with an overabundance of extreme caution.
Life during crises
Columbia University researchers wrote a study which examines the behavioral consequences of terrorism. In the article, the researchers note there is no uniform human response to terrorist attacks or to manmade or natural disasters. They point to the suicide rate in Northern Ireland at the height of the ethno-nationalist conflict dubbed the Troubles. From 1969 to 1975, the rate declined by 50 percent. Folks were too busy trying to stay alive to succumb to suicidal thoughts. But nearly half of the firefighters battling a bushfire in Australia in 1993 developed post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD – in the two years following the fire.
Responding with fear and ambiguity to fear
New York schools received similar emails to that which caused Los Angeles to close its schools. New York City officials determined the emails were not credible and the schools remained open. According to CNN and other news sources, the emails were nearly identical. Why did New York discount the threat and Los Angeles take it seriously? Because on December 2, 2015, terrorists attacked a government building in San Bernardino, California. They killed 14 and wounded more.
Anthony Mele, Psy.D., is the chief clinical officer of the Sovereign Health Group. He explains, “When random destructive acts — perpetrated by humans or occurring as events of nature — upset one’s ability to interpret our environment, we feel disconnected from that environment. When terrorism intrudes into this, our environment is no longer understandable. Our interpretations are now inaccurate, what we once considered safe is no longer so, our planning is now obsolete as what once worked is no longer effective.”
Parents teach your children
Mele advises parents not to expose young children to images of violence. Reassurance is the key. Parents must reassure their children they are loved and safe. Adolescents and teenagers require different handling. Mele notes, “Since ambiguity is difficult for even many adults, adolescents may ‘strike a pose’ of defiance or anger or bravado to deal with being the potential victim of random violence. At this point, adolescents may look toward adult models — parents, teachers, coaches, family members — to see how they are reacting and behaving. Teaching children and adolescents to be prepared and vigilant without being paranoid or reclusive is a valuable adult task.”
And the average Joe?
Mele quotes Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl, who wrote, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” The challenge for every person is to adapt to the reality without being controlled by it. Mele adds, “Personally, my quest to find meaning in the random and sometimes violent acts of humanity is buttressed by my spirituality and belief that ultimately all events lead to good.”
The Sovereign Health Group is a nationally recognized behavioral health treatment center. We specialize in treating mental health, addiction and co-occurring disorders. To learn about how we treat post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions which manifest in the wake of disaster, please call our 24/7 helpline.
Written by Darren Fraser, Sovereign Health Group writer