Victims of Troubles need help for trauma

July 12, 1996

The psychological costs of political violence in Northern Ireland are only now beginning to emerge, according to research by a University of Ulster psychologist.

Marie Smyth warns that whatever the outcome of talks, permanent peace is unlikely unless steps are taken to organise effective help for the many who have not yet recovered from their ordeal.

In the first in-depth study of the long-term effects of violence in the province, Ms Smyth found that trauma left untreated did not automatically disappear. Even 20 years later, people still report sleep disturbance, panic attacks, intrusive thoughts and flashbacks. Symptoms often emerge for the first time long after the violent event.

In interviews with 300 people, all linked to 14 deaths from violence, she found that even in close-knit working-class communities with a common political outlook loss was not spoken of . . . "for fear of upsetting my mother" or "fear of appearing weak". Denial, silence, or a brave face seemed to be standard coping stratagems. There was little space to grieve, mourn, question, adjust or accept.

The veto on talk about personal trauma related to the Troubles is having discernible consequences, Dr Smyth warns. Since the ceasefires the common use of words like "fear", "anxiety", "mistrust", "suspicion", "triumphalism" would seem to indicate that "communities are not yet equipped for arbitration or healing", she says.

The added stresses of poverty, unemployment and routine crime have further reduced coping skills to the most basic self-protection.

Those affected by violence are liable to stick with their victim role, where they know only how to deal with persecutors or rescuers but not with equals. "The coping strategies used to survive the last 25 years, such as denial or minimising violence, are dangerous in a peaceful society," Dr Smyth warns.

The added tolerance of violence seen among those who have witnessed or experienced it is another problem. "They can come to see it as a legitimate way to express anger, frustration or disempowerment." A clear pattern emerged in the research which showed that violence did in fact beget violence, with such cycles crossing from one generation to the next. "This generation's victims may run the risk of becoming the next generation of perpetrators."

Yet help to victims of political violence is underdeveloped, uncoordinated, and not equally available geographically. Attempts to deal with their unaddressed pain has led some to resort to alcohol, aggression or even violence.

Data on the effects of strife has focussed on victims of IRA warfare and overlooked the plight of those who have suffered state or Loyalist violence. Yet research would suggest that psychological damage varies with the perpetrator's identity and intentions. Violence by the state had specific effects that parallel those of child sexual abuse, says Dr Smyth."In both cases the victim experiences a complete destruction of trust in authority and a sense of the world being a totally unsafe place. Unlike victims of IRA violence, where the state will attempt to pursue the perpetrator, victims of state violence often have no redress. This has proved a major barrier to psychological healing."

Post traumatic stress disorder, now the benchmark for measuring the psychological effects of sectarian violence, is not an appropriate yardstick for Northern Ireland, Dr Smyth concludes.

Discovered in the United States among servicemen returned from Vietnam, the syndrome assumes one leaves the battlefield to go home. But in Northern Ireland the battlefield is home: "People, particularly in working class communities, don't get to the post trauma position. Often one trauma is compounded and confounded by the next."

Lasting peace depends on the effects of violence being openly and sensitively addressed. "The end of violence is only the tip of the peace process iceberg. Far from being the problem, violence is merely its most frightening and dangerous symptom. The problem has been grievance. Failure to address the different hurts of victims in Northern Ireland will water the seeds of grievance," she says.

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