Terror attacks do not traumatise people more than other distressing events, research finds

'The reassuring conclusion of our work is that terrorism does not terrorise,' says University of Bath professor Bill Durodie

Peter Stubley
Wednesday 17 October 2018 17:44
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Terror attacks do not traumatise people any more than other distressing events, according to a new study, which suggests that the impact of terrorism on mental health has been exaggerated by politicians, officials, the media and academics.

It also questions the idea that people, particularly the young, can be traumatised merely through watching such events unfold on TV.

Published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal, the research reviewed more than 400 research articles studying the association between acts of terrorism and mental health.

It concluded terrorism does not cause increases in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) more than would be expected.

“After 9/11, there was an enormous push to uncover evidence of PTSD in people who said that they had been affected by those events either directly or indirectly through the media,” said professor Bill Durodie from the department of politics, languages and international studies at the University of Bath. "Despite this, the reassuring conclusion of our work is that terrorism does not terrorise.

“In that regard, our findings fly in the face of various announcements from politicians, officials, the media and even other academics that terrorist incidents impact our mental health and well-being adversely.”

Prof Durodie added: ”There is clear evidence of people’s resilience in the face of such events and so, for us, it is important for politicians, the media and commentators to take these findings on board and refocus attention more on this in the face of such terrible events.”

The team of researchers found almost no focus on links between terrorism and mental health until shortly before 9/11, followed by a spike in articles focused on the connection. However, researchers found no clear association between terror events and cases of PTSD.

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Their findings suggest many studies expanded what was meant by the term, allowing for categories such as "pre-PTSD" or "PTSD-symptom" to be included.

This could lead to those who genuinely suffer from it being less able to access the support they need, they said.

Responses to terrorist incidents that highlight social bonds and resilience – rather than physical vulnerability – should also be encouraged, the researchers added.

It also ignores other significant social, economic and physical impacts tied to terror events. In the case of 9/11 this included respiratory disorders and job losses.

Dr David Wainwright, senior lecturer at the University of Bath, said: “Notably, our work also drew into question the presumption that people, particularly the young, can be traumatised merely through watching such events unfold on TV. Some researchers did rush to such conclusions but usually retracted them a few years later.

“Unfortunately, though, it is their earlier, impressionistic assumptions that continue to be cited in many instances, despite most noting that there is no conclusive evidence on this.”

He added: “Of course, young people should be protected from events and have these explained to them. They may need to have their television viewing limited, too. But this has more to do with the challenges of asserting parental authority today – a social factor – than media or medical effects that are deemed to be inevitable.

“The inordinate focus on children in the work we reviewed may also express an unstated desire to control adult responses through the auspices of protection.”

“This is not to say that people who experience traumatic events do not need psychological support,” Prof Durodie said. But we believe that it is unhelpful to categorise more people than is true with PTSD.”

Additional reporting by Press Association

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