“Of all the human rights of children, perhaps the most important is the right to be safe”
The tragic events in Manchester this week have evoked a range of strong emotions in me: shock, sadness, anger, to name a few. The events occurred on the other side of the world to me, and did not affect anyone close to me or even known to me, yet I found myself feeling tremendous grief and devastation. Of all the feelings that troubled me, one stood out the most. For a short period of time, I found myself feeling unsafe.
This got me thinking about people who feel unsafe for long periods of time – typically, people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event.
What is a traumatic event?
A traumatic event is any event that involves exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence. Some events are one-off, sudden and unexpected, for example, being in a serious car accident, or the recent attack in Manchester. Other events, such as childhood sexual abuse, can occur repeatedly, over a long period of time. It is important to distinguish between a traumatic event and a stressful life event (e.g. marriage breakup, death of a loved one through natural causes), as they are not the same thing, and are experienced and treated very differently.
Trauma is common, with most people experiencing at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. It is also very common for people who experience or witness a traumatic event to be emotionally affected by it. The way it affects people will vary and will depend on a number of factors, including the nature of the event. Many will recover within the first week or two with the help and support of close family and friends. While others will have longer-lasting effects.
What are the psychological consequences of trauma?
After a traumatic event, a person might no longer believe that the world is a safe place, that people are generally good, or that they are in control of what happens to them. People will often talk about their world being shattered, and usually, it is these beliefs that are shattered.
Some people may develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other mental health problems. PTSD is a very serious problem and requires treatment from a qualified mental health professional.
Something else can also happen after a traumatic event; something probably quite unexpected. What if I told you that there are actually benefits of experiencing a traumatic event? Research into a field known as Post-Traumatic Growth suggests this can happen.
What does post-traumatic growth look like?
People exposed even to the most traumatic events have been shown to report some ‘good’ to emerge from their struggle. For some people, this can include a change in the way they perceive themselves. Some report feeling stronger and more self-assured. They may also find meaning in the event, for example, that the trauma happened to them to make them a ‘better person’. Some may even experience a new outlook on life, and have a greater appreciation for their own existence.
It is also common to experience a change in relationships. When confronted with a traumatic event, people realise how quickly relationships can be lost. This can lead to a deepening of their relationships as their appreciation for how important others are to them increases.
Who can help with trauma?
A mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist can help. It is important that the chosen health professional understands how trauma works, and knows how to treat it, but it is even more important they understand that not only does the person need to feel safe, but that it is their right. Feeling safe during the therapy process is a big part of healing; the trust and rapport between the therapist and client should not be underestimated. Importantly, one must always remember that it is possible to feel safe again, and who knows, perhaps some good can come out of it after all.
It is my hope that the surviving victims and witnesses of the Manchester attack can eventually feel safe again.
TO SUM UP:
- A traumatic event is a common experience and includes any event that involves exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence
- People respond to trauma differently; while some recover shortly after the event, others experience longer lasting effects
- Feeling unsafe is a common reaction to a traumatic event
- Post-traumatic growth can occur, where people find some ‘good’ out of the trauma
- A qualified mental health professional that understands trauma can help; they must understand one’s need and right to feel safe.