Advice unheeded is no use at all

October 15, 1999

In the aftermath of the Paddington tragedy, Stephen Regel asks what role, if any, academics can play

In the aftermath of the Paddington rail disaster, opinions and views are already being sought from academics. But to what extent can their expertise provide us with objective analysis of this disaster and thus benefit both the forthcoming public inquiry and the victims and survivors? This is not a rhetorical question.

There is a difference between pronouncements made for the benefit of the media and detailed, objective evidence in pursuit of the truth following such an appalling tragedy. There will always be "media" dons after their 15 minutes of fame. But true experts tend to fall into two categories. The first is concerned with the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the accident, together with the political implications for the rail operators and government. This group will have detailed knowledge and experience in the operational realms of accident investigation, health and safety and forensic pathology. The second group will focus on the needs of the survivors and the families of the victims.

While the first group will be working from sound knowledge based on research and practice, the situation is not so clear-cut for the second.

Certainly, much will be made of the psychological impact of the accident. There will be discussion of the availability and need for "counselling". Here we need to exercise caution. There is considerably less orthodoxy in the fields of counselling, psychotherapy and psychiatry than in other allied disciplines. As a consequence, "expert" views vary considerably - which should give cause for concern.

When it comes to dealing with the psychological effects of trauma, this lack of orthodoxy is very apparent. Methods and models of intervention are often driven by dogma and ideology and are rarely based on any sound empirical foundation.

So the picture of how much academic expertise can help in the aftermath of Paddington is a confused one. Undoubtedly there will be some expert advice that deserves to be acted on. But academics can only advise: it is for others to turn that advice into policy.

The 1991 report of the Home Office working party convened in the wake of the disasters throughout the 1980s made recommendations aimed at aiding survivors through best practice. In the light of more recent incidents - culminating in the present tragedy, it is worth revisiting some of their recommendations. It will come as no surprise that many have still not been implemented. Stephen Regel is director, Centre for Traumatic Stress Research and

Practice, Nottingham Trent University.

Can academics help prevent

disasters?

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