September 11, the London bombings, the Boston Marathon, Manchester Arena: terrorist attacks frequently make headlines across the globe.
But just how terrorising are terrorist attacks? According to a recent study, not as much as we might have thought.
A review of more than 400 research articles pre and post 9/11 that studied the association between terrorist acts and mental health has found that terrorism might not have as negative an impact on mental health as previously believed. At the very least, the researchers found, terrorist acts are not associated with a greater rate of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared with other distressing events.
The researchers from the University of Bath say that much of the commentary on the topic suggests terrorist events have a significantly negative impact on a person’s mental health and psychological wellbeing, but they found this isn’t necessarily true. They argue many people are resilient enough to carry on without a long lasting negative impact from terrorist events.
“Terrorism today is just another of life's challenges for most people. That does not mean that it is normal and ought simply to be shrugged off because there is certainly nothing normal about people who blow up 12 year old children at a pop concert. But the good news is that most people have little choice but to carry on and their existing networks are more than sufficient to do so,” Professor Bill Durodie, lead author and professor at the Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies at the University of Bath told Theravive.
Durodie and his team reviewed and analysed over 400 research papers from pre and post 9/11. They found that on the whole, attempts by researchers to understand the link between terrorism and mental health impacts are reasonably recent. This was in part due to the recognition of PTSD, and its redefining in 1994 by the American Psychological Association.
“Approaches to mental health were changing before 9/11. Those events were a catalyst not a cause. Some of the changes are beneficial, of course. Removing stigma and providing access to services are essential to any civilised society. The PTSD category also allowed a shift from problematising the individual to allowing the notion that certain challenges could generate a universal response across populations,” Professor Durodie said.
“But we ought also ward against encouraging a sense that we are all mentally unwell. People are far more resilient than projected. And that is normal,” he said.
Although the period following the 9/11 terror attacks saw an increase in research on PTSD and terror events, Durodie and his colleagues were unable to find a clear association between the two in the literature. They argue many studies in this period were compelled to expand upon the definition of PTSD, allowing for such terms as “Pre-PTSD” and “PTSD symptom” They say this is unhelpful not only because it confuses the meaning of PTSD but also because by expanding the definition unnecessarily, those who genuinely suffer from it are less likely to be able to receive the support they need.
“No-one is well served by exaggerating the scale of problems. We should not all be treated like victims and those who genuinely need support may not get it if we are all considered damaged,” Durodie said.
“Much of the research conducted appears to have taken the form of looking for a predetermined conclusion. That means researchers were unable to see what their evidence said, as well as ignoring other challenges. Here we have a case whereby everyone advised there would be a mental health impact and it did not transpire,” he said.
Putting such focus on predetermined ideas also ignores other notable impacts of terror events from a social, physical and economic standpoint. For the September 11 terror attacks, Durodie says, this includes things like respiratory disorders and job losses.
The study also examined the presumption that children could be traumatised from terror events merely by watching them on television. They note that many researchers rushed to draw such conclusions, but ultimately retracted them a few years later. The researchers argue it is the earlier, incorrect assumptions with no conclusive evidence that continue to be cited.
The fact that terrorist acts have not been found to terrorise as much as previously thought should be reassuring. But Durodie argues more focus should be placed on society’s social bonds of resilience, rather than their vulnerability, in the face of such events.
He emphasises that the findings of the study do not suggest people who experience trauma like terror attacks don’t need psychological support. Rather he argues it is important to correctly categorise those with PTSD so they can receive the help they need.
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.