Paddington train disaster: Tragedy that will remain in survivors minds

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The Independent Online

UP TO a quarter of the survivors can be expected to suffer long- term psychological damage which will become more apparent over the next few weeks and months, experts said yesterday.

UP TO a quarter of the survivors can be expected to suffer long- term psychological damage which will become more apparent over the next few weeks and months, experts said yesterday.

Clinical psychologists who treat the victims of post-traumatic stress disorder said that although the mental health of some people can be unaffected by a major disaster, for others the experience can be crippling.

Peter Hodgkinson, director of the Centre for Crisis Psychology in Skipton, north Yorkshire, said that it is difficult at this stage to identify the people who will develop severe psychological effects. He said that it was important to offer support to everyone involved.

"You offer people some broad-spectrum help that they can access all the time. You don't know how many people will be affected," said Mr Hodgkinson, who has recently returned from South Africa after helping the survivors of the coach crash in which 26 British holidaymakers died.

Roughly half of the survivors who live through a major disaster usually experience little or no psychological effects, Mr Hodgkinson said. The other half have more protracted symptoms, such as nightmares and anxiety attacks, and for about a quarter of these the problems can develop into post-traumatic stress disorder. Leslie Carrick-Smith, a chartered forensic psychologist based in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, who specialises in trauma, said that some people with even mild symptoms of stress disorder can become psychologically damaged. "The onset and severity will vary between people. Some of the survivors will be crippled by it and others will escape fairly lightly," he said.

Many survivors will dissociate themselves from what happened and will look upon the accident as an unreal event, a bit like having lived through a bad dream; others may actually feel euphoric at having survived, Mr Carrick-Smith said. "People should talk of their experience and not bottle it up," he said. Post-traumatic stress disorder does not begin to be diagnosed until several weeks after an event and it may take months before some of the survivors realise they suffer from it.

Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, sleeplessness, mood swings and an inability to concentrate are some of the symptoms expressed by major accident survivors. He likened the impact of such a disaster to living through the horrors of a battlefield. "Except in a battlefield, you almost expect it. These poor people didn't," he said.

Rev Ian Hamiliton, chaplain at St Mary's NHS Trust, who counselled the injured from the Hillsborough disaster, spent time talking to and reassuring some of the the rail crash survivors yesterday. "Many people need to come to terms with what can be horrendous feelings of guilt. Some come away from a major incident with minor injuries and sometimes their friends are far more seriously injured," he said.

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