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Thursday, 20 September, 2001, 12:29 GMT 13:29 UK
Trauma expert Dr James Thompson
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A week after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, many people are struggling to come to terms with the tragedy.

We have witnessed the grief of those who have lost friends and relatives and the shock of the those who made a narrow escape.

Many people, even those many miles from America, have sought counselling to cope with the trauma.

How can we cope with the emotions raised by such a traumatic event? And can counselling or therapy help?

Dr James Thompson, expert in psychological trauma, took your questions in a live forum.


Highlights of the interview:


Newshost:

Ann Hirst, London, UK asks: How far do you think the media blanket coverage of events will affect people. Have news sources gone too far in attempting to convey the latest up to the minute events?


Dr James Thompson:

I think it is unreal and people have been saying it's like a horror movie to watch those images again and again. I think they were repeated too often. It does seem it is like a video production.

In terms of what actually damages people - people are probably more damaged when they realise that human lives were lost and seeing people in distress. By damage, I mean upsetting people - not necessarily that they are psychologically damaged. Very few people are truly psychologically damaged by things they see on television because you can leave, you can switch off. It's not really a primary traumatic event.


Newshost:

I have heard some people say that the pictures were so extraordinary that they had almost an hypnotic quality, people couldn't turn away from them.


Dr James Thompson:

I think most of us have been hypnotised by this story because it's been filmed and because we have seen so much footage and because it is so unreal and that it's a new event. So in a sense you might say all of us have watched too much television and it's our fault because we have been seeking news. That is normally what happens after a disaster, people want to find out what happened. Although perhaps the TV people did repeat the images too often but good quality reporting is the one thing that stops panic and rumour. So perhaps on balance it is best to tell the story however gruesome it was.


Newshost:

Is it usual in cases like this that there is a kind of delayed reaction before people really start to understand the consequences and feel the human cost of what has happened?


Dr James Thompson:

In the immediate effects of a disaster people continue doing what they were doing beforehand. It takes just a while to realise how bad things are. But then people normally do go into shock and potentially if you are going to react you would probably react in the very early stages of the event. For those of us who are so far distant, I don't really think that for most of us watching a news story of this sort would be a direct cause of trauma.


Newshost:

Paula in Glasgow UK asks: I am 34 and I never imagined I'd witness something so horrific in my lifetime. I am lucky enough to have stood on the viewing balcony of the World Trade Center a few years ago and I am simply unable to accept that those buildings no longer exist. I watched last Tuesday's events live from the first plane strike and my world was turned on its head - nothing now can ever be the same. It is like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Is this feeling widespread and how can people cope with these feelings of sudden change?


Dr James Thompson:

Those of us who have seen lots of disasters know that the world does carry on. Things of this dreadful sort have happened in different ways in different parts of the planet. There is an immediate impact on the direct survivors of feeling that life is now unreal but this does eventually pass. The ordinary duties of life come back again. So what I would reply is: your duty now that you have watched everything is to get back to your real life and to be as productive as you possibly can. We all of us have to avoid bathing in gruesome news and perhaps to do the things we would normally do which is what would get us back to a better function.


Newshost:

Saskia Forbes in Weybridge, UK asks: I will certainly become less materialistic and will certainly stop wasting my time worrying about things such as housework and the laundry. I will make a very conscious effort to have more contact with friends and family and to make that a deeper and more meaningful contact. Will this make some of us stronger in some strange way?


Dr James Thompson:

About one-third of the people who have been in disasters say something good has come out of it. Normally that they strengthen their family bonds, they have a better view of the balance of life - they appreciate nature and music more than they did before. Unfortunately or fortunately depending on how you look at it within about four to five months most people are worrying about the housework and the mortgage again. So I cannot be absolutely sure that everyone after witnessing a disaster will become a better and more balanced person. It would be lovely to believe it but I can't really think that it's true.


Newshost:

Cyril, London, UK asks: This has been perhaps the worst week I can remember. Living under the fear of violence is simply awful but in a positive way it has given me a degree of empathy with those poor people whose daily lives are spent dodging bullets in unstable regions. What god would allow this to happen? Will people question their beliefs more strongly now as a result of what they have seen and heard?


Dr James Thompson:

Firstly on the question of beliefs, I have looked at this very carefully at the Traumatic Stress Unit together with my colleagues and we find that in general after disasters the direct survivors do find that their beliefs are questioned and reduced - not only their religious beliefs but certainly their feelings of trust in society and trust in other people. So yes, that is a damaging effect for quite a number of people. I agree some people would feel better empathy with the oppressed of the world because of what's happened - and if these effects can be maintained - good. Again, I must say that people tend to forget these good intentions and they tend to fade after a while.


Newshost:

We also hear sometimes about people expressing feelings of guilt - perhaps because they escaped the disaster particularly by chance.


Dr James Thompson:

Though that guilt does happen, I think it is less prominent than fear and anger but yes, it is there. It's about all those people that feel that those who died were much better than they were and yet they died.

It's also the case when people feel that they pushed in a rush to get out and would have liked to have stopped and helped others. So there is quite a lot for the primary survivors to have to deal with and it is a very unpleasant psychological issue which one hopes they will discuss with friends and any helpers they have.

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