Hostage to stress hits out

March 22, 1996

(Photograph) - Terry Waite (left), the former special envoy and hostage, lashed out at critics of post-traumatic stress disorder at a conference this week. Addressing an audience of psychologists and psychiatrists, he rejected recent comments made by the Princess Royal, who suggested to a Victim Support conference in Glasgow that the disorder might be no more than "a convenient label for a common problem".

Speakers at the first European conference on traumatic stress in emergency services, peacekeeping operations and humanitarian aid organisations, revealed that, one month after the hostage-taking in a French school last year, five out of 29 children had the disorder. A Dutch psychologist said that all police officers involved in shooting incidents in the 1980s suffered from it.

And a British study by Stuart Mitchell, a clinical psychologist at Hartlepool General Hospital, and Jennifer Mitchell-Gibbs, a police inspector, found that nearly a quarter of police officers suffer from severe psychological distress. The Dutch study also found that the most depressing type of incident for police officers was the death of children.

Stuart Turner, president of the European Society for Traumatic Stress Studies said: "It's a very exciting time for PTSD." He said that research was at the stage of comparing treatments rather than arguing over whether the disorder exists.

Berthold Gersons, of the University of Amsterdam, has developed a treatment for people with PTSD who experienced a traumatic incident at any time from six months to 50 years ago.

Over 16 sessions the patient works through the disaster, ending by burning memorabilia from the incident in a "farewell ritual" after which there is a celebration. "We know this ritual from some fishing communities," he said. A randomised trial found that patients improved compared with controls.

Meanwhile, other psychologists are excited by a development known as eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing, in which the therapist waves their hand in front of the sufferer, who follows the movement with his or her eyes.

Roger Solomon said: "EMDR appears to stimulate neurological mechanisms that can lead to accelerated processing of the trauma event. "A traumatic experience can disrupt the neurological and psychological information processing mechanisms necssary for the adaptive resolution and integration of a traumatic event."

He said that studies have shown that, when it forms part of an overall treatment plan, EMDR decreases post-traumatic symptoms.

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