School ship disaster survivors in distress mental distress

British Psychological Society: Teenage suicides, masculinity and classroom victimisation under scrutiny. Liz Hunt reports
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The Independent Online
Almost one in 10 teenage survivors of a British school's cruise ship disaster have attempted suicide, and more than half have suffered severe psychological distress in the seven years since the sinking, psychologists said yesterday.

The survivors, now in their early twenties, are also at least a year behind their peers in their academic studies and fewer of them have gone to university or completed degrees.

Julie Nurrish, a researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, said the findings suggest that the low uptake of counselling and support by the survivors following the disaster may be a factor in the persistence and extent of symptoms.

The SF Jupiter had just set sail from Piraeus, in Greece, with nearly 400 British schoolchildren, aged 14 to 15, on board when it was rammed by a freighter on 21 October 1988. It rapidly took on water and sank within 40 minutes. Four people died, a pupil and a teacher from Birmingham, and two Greek sailors.

Speaking on the second day of the British Psychological Society annual conference in Brighton yesterday, Ms Nurrish said that the follow-up study of survivors in the intervening seven years had produced some alarming findings. There had been 14 suicide attempts in the group of 168 survivors traced so far (9 per cent), compared with one in the control group of 58. A survivor had committed suicide in 1993.

Some 52 per cent of survivors had suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, with symptoms including flashbacks of the event, panic attacks, avoidance of water and boats, and distancing from their close family and friends. These symptoms had persisted for more than five years in 14 per cent of the group.

More than two-thirds of the survivors had suffered from depression or other forms of mental illness since the accident.

"We did not expect to find this degree of psychological morbidity," Ms Nurrish said. "All were offered counselling but very few - about 20 per cent - actually took it up. Further research is needed to determine if this was a factor."

There were more survivors with A-levels at the time of the follow-up than in the control group, indicating that they should have gone on to university, but many did not.

The Young Adult Research Team, funded by the Medical Research Council, also interviewed mothers of survivors. "Some mothers said their sons and daughters went away as children and came back adults," Ms Nurrish said.

Overall, the survivors said they could not plan for the future because they knew it could be cut short at any time. Most of them thought they were going to die during the sinking and it is this feeling that they have never forgotten, she added.

Ms Nurrish said that further analysis of findings from the three year study, to be completed this year, may identify "protective affects" in the early lives of some survivors which limited the trauma they suffered. "People do get through events, and why they do is a very important question."