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Coping after a Crisis: Reducing Mental Distress following the Terror Attacks

2019 Apr 24

The Easter Sunday terror attacks that shook the island on April 21st have left behind a nation of fear, panic and uncertainty. While the authorities take steps to contain the present situation, Sri Lanka still continues to deal with the aftermath. A crisis event can cause strong reactions and an overwhelming sense of being unable to cope. It is of utmost importance to understand that people are affected by trauma in a number of different ways.
Nivendra Uduman, counselling psychologist and member of The Ohana Project, a community founded to promote mental health, was actively involved in providing psychological first aid to those affected by the attacks. Commenting on the situation, he stated that “a lot of what [they] came across was anxiety and the general lack of information that created a lot of panic and confusion amongst a lot of people. The reactions we observed were mostly fear, immense grief, sadness and also a lack of hope about the future. Some people were also very worried about how they would rebuild their lives, for example, once they are discharged from the hospital”.

Crisis events such as these also require immediate psychological first aid, in order to reduce the long term effects that trauma can bring. Nivendra added that “psychological support is a key element in responding to this disaster because we have to ensure that people don’t suffer in the long run. Immediate psychological first aid is one of the crucial measures of disaster response where we try to reduce or prevent long-term post-traumatic stress disorder or other forms of mental health issues that can come up due to the trauma they have experienced. It is very important that psychological first aid is talked about and practised, especially in situations like this.”

Source: International Critical Incident Stress Foundation

Common reactions to an event of this scale can include shock and disbelief, disorientation, anger and irritation, apathy and numbing, sadness, crying for no apparent reason, physical pain such as headaches, difficulty sleeping and changes in eating patterns, amongst others. The team from The Ohana Project advises against watching disturbing material or spending a huge portion of time watching the news. Instead, spend some time talking to friends and family and try engaging in relaxing activities like listening to music or playing with a pet. Feelings of fear, anxiety, and sadness cannot be managed alone, at certain times. Reach out to someone you trust or contact a mental health professional to help you cope.

Reaching out to friends and family

If a friend or family member shows signs of distress,

  • Spend time listening to them and offer reassurance.
  • Make sure you respect their privacy and do not take any feelings of anger or distress personally.
  • Statements like “it could have been worse” etc. do not offer any consolation so refrain from conversations of that nature and instead, show empathy and a willingness to understand and assist them in any way.
  • Identifying and avoiding the triggers that cause panic among the certain people are also helpful measures to take.

Helping children understand

Image courtesy: Los Angeles Times

Children may exhibit their fear and confusion in different ways. Start by acknowledging that there is no right or wrong way to feel in situations like this. Some responses may include being easily startled, anger, sadness, trouble sleeping and nightmares, repeated drawing or playing about events related to the traumatic event.

Parents or guardians can help by spending more time with the children, providing a space to explain what they feel without interruption, praying together as a family, involving them in family activities or asking them to help you with tasks, staying calm during anger outbursts and limiting TV viewing, for example.

A common problem that many parents and caregivers face is not knowing how to explain a crisis event to a child. These tips may help in doing so:

  • Start discussing the topic but do not force them to speak
  • Some children communicate by drawing pictures or playing
  • Listen attentively and let them express themselves freely
  • Share your feelings with them as well
  • Reassure them that the world is a good place but sometimes, there are bad people who do bad things.
  • Do not lie to your child. Help them understand that bad things happen but there are people working hard to keep us safe
  • Try to focus more on the positive things that have occurred since the event

The list below includes a set of helplines and sources to help anyone in need of support.

  • The Ohana Project – 0777346334 (Nivendra), 0774979641 (Nilushka)
  • CCCline 1333 (24 hours)
  • NIMH toll free hotline – 1926 (24 hours)
  • 0717639898 (24 hours)
  • Sumithrayo -011 2696666 (9am to 8pm)

Mental health should be a prime concern during a crisis event, in order to collectively ensure that no one suffers from long-term trauma or any other mental health issue. Look out for your loved ones and reach out to those in need in your own little way. Together, we will show the world that our resilience will always be greater than fear.