Tragedy dogs Omagh young

September 25, 1998

Leaving home and going to university can be difficult under any circumstances. But just over a month after the tragedy in Omagh, things are especially difficult for the town's students due to start at higher education institutions in the coming weeks.

Three further bomb scares are continuing to drain the young people of Omagh. Elizabeth Capewell, of the Centre for Crisis Management and Education, said: "Some of the kids were shivering with fear at the memories of the week before, and because their friends were either dead or injured badly. These are 17 and 18-year-olds."

Ms Capewell has many years' experience dealing with the aftermath of such tragedies. Although her speciality is working with schoolchildren, "we were picking up concerns about young people going to college. So many were injured or killed. A lot were working in town and were very much part of it."

The issue of handling students who have come from a crisis situation is often overlooked in higher education - with many failing to get the help they need. "What happened after Hillsborough, which was in April, was that a lot did well at A level, but then many didn't take up a university place or dropped out soon after. It was a real problem."

Ms Capewell is now working hard in Omagh to raise awareness of problems facing the young people about to leave home for university, often in Scotland or England. "The energy just is not there. The typical symptoms of trauma, which you get with the Omagh kids, is called restricted range of effect - they can't cope, and are quite withdrawn and preoccupied."

The real problem comes when, after a major crisis, students arrive at their academic institution. Staff have no idea how to respond, and may even do so inappropriately - for example, by trying to make sure nobody finds out. Ms Capewell is keen to correct the misconception that tutors and staff are expected to behave like counsellors.

"It's not a counselling issue. This is about their education and learning. A lot of them will be finding it hard to concentrate as short-term memory often goes. If the young person knows this is understood, that immediately takes a lot of the stress away and frees their mind up."

Ms Capewell's own daughter went to university four days after the death of her sister. It was three years before she was ready to get help. This is common. "I often look back and think the whole of her time at university was affected," says Ms Capewell.

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