The term ‘terrorism’ is familiar to all of us. However, it is difficult to attribute a single, standard definition to terrorism because of its stigma and controversy. The term was first coined in the 1790s to refer to the terror employed during the French Revolution by the Jacobin party of Maximilien Robespierre, including the mass executions by guillotine. The period of Robespierre came to be known as the ‘Reign of Terror’.
Since the 20th century, the term terrorism has been used to denote the violence against civilians to influence a government policy or overthrow a regime. According to a definition by Carsten Bockstette, “Terrorism is defined as political violence in an asymmetrical conflict that is designed to induce terror and psychic fear (sometimes indiscriminate) through the violent victimisation and destruction of non-combatant targets (sometimes iconic symbols) …”
It may be carried out as blasts, suicide bombings, bio-terrorism, narco-terrorism and financial terrorism. It can happen at a domestic or international level. Indeed, terrorism may simultaneously occur on psychological, ideological, and strategic grounds.
Some may pursue terrorism to advance their ideologies, while others may use it to secure their strategic objectives. It is vital to analyse the psychological motivations of terrorists and the psychological impact on the victims. Here, we will focus on the latter aspect, which is the psychological impact of terrorism on the survivors.
Defining Mental Health
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and can contribute to his or her community. It is an integral component of health and well-being that underpins our individual and collective abilities to make decisions, build relationships and shape our world.
Mental health is a basic human right. And it is crucial to personal, community and socio-economic development.” However, mental health is not merely the absence of mental disorders but rather a complete physical, mental, and social well-being.
Various factors influence a person’s mental health, ranging from Biological factors, such as genes or brain chemistry, life experiences, such as trauma or abuse, emotional neglect during childhood, or poverty, inequality, or resource deprivation.
The Psychological Impact of Terrorism on the Victims
The primary motive of terrorism is to inflict psychological damage on the victims, which is why terrorism is often called psychological warfare. The psychological impact of terrorist attacks can be categorised as short-term and long-term. The short-term impact is caused by the acute panic and trauma of witnessing or being part of such a horrendous event and needs to be tackled with extreme care.
Emergency mental health support needs to be provided to the victims, just as physical emergency care. These may include making arrangements to meet families, communicating with families, not at the scene, offering assistance in coping with the stress and panic, etc.
Long-term impacts stem from the hurdle of coping with the trauma and the persistent fear of experiencing another traumatic event in the future. This could lead to behavioural and distress response alterations in the individual or perhaps a psychiatric illness.
Behavioural changes & Psychiatric illnesses
Behavioural changes may include patterns such as increased alcohol consumption or smoking, spending more time with loved ones, volunteering, or taking steps to be prepared for a similar traumatic event. Changes in distress response may be embodied as insomnia, anxiety, or heightened feelings of anger and vulnerability.
Psychiatric illnesses resulting from terrorism include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Acute Stress Disorder (ASD), and Depression, to mention a few. The course of the illness varies for each individual; some may experience remission, while others have to carry the burden of mental illness for their whole lives.
A 2022 report by the WHO unveiled that among people who have experienced war or other conflicts in the previous ten years, one in five (22%) will have depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
Supporting Studies and Reports on the Mental Impact of Terrorism
The 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks killed 164 people and injured around 300. One of the common psychiatric disorders that was found among the victims was Acute Stress Disorder. In a study which assessed 70 victims (52 males and 28 females), 21 were diagnosed with ASD.
A study conducted in Afghanistan following the Soviet occupation and subsequent years of violence revealed that out of the 699 non-disabled respondents in the survey, 67.7% had symptoms of depression, 72.2% had anxiety symptoms, and 42% suffered from PTSD.
A survey conducted on 512 participants, out of whom 84 had been directly exposed to a terrorist attack, and 191 had a family member or friend exposed to such an attack, revealed PTSD among 48 participants, acute stress disorder by one participant, and 299 reported depression.
Taking account of a study on the Israel-Palestine conflict, civilians in both countries exposed to political violence are at heightened risk for PTSD and major depression.
Collective Impact on the Society
Apart from the psychological impact on individuals, terrorism creates a collective trauma within society. Abuses such as torture or ethnically-targeted violence may create “an order based on imminent pervasive threat, fear, terror, and inhibition,… a state of generalized insecurity, terror, lack of confidence, and rupture of the social fabric.”
A study conducted among low-income patients seven to sixteen months after the 9/11 attacks found that those affected by the death of close ones were twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mental health condition.
They were also more prone to functional impairment and work loss. It was also found that the survivors who had their family or friends involved in the rescue and recovery efforts were twice as likely to suffer from anxiety disorder.
Higher risk to Women and Children
It is found that women and children are at a higher risk of developing mental health issues from terrorist attacks. According to a study, one in five women out of a total of 1463 respondents had been witnesses of armed attacks and were found to have higher chances of contracting PTSD and Depressive Disorder symptoms.
The domestic and intimate partner violence that women have to go through in their domestic settings adds to their mental health issues. The same study revealed that these women tend to cope with their trauma by physically assaulting or ill-treating their children. And this contributes to psychological problems in the children. Thus, a vicious cycle is formed.
As per a 2019 report by ‘Save the Children in Afghanistan, 73% of parents interviewed responded that their children experienced fearfulness and anxiety due to conflict; 38% reported that their children engaged in self-harming activities.
What Can Be Done?
Considering the intensity of the psychological impact that terrorism has caused, it is necessary that proper mental health care facilities must be set up in places prone to violent extremist attacks. However, most countries fail here, especially the low and middle-income countries.
The World Health Organisation estimates that per 100,000 people in Afghanistan, there are only 0.23 and 0.30 psychiatrists and psychologists, respectively. The 2019-2023 National Mental Health Strategy concluded that less than 10% of the population in Afghanistan is getting medical services for treating psychological disorders.
Pakistan has emergency policies that are not related to mental health and are poorly implemented. There is also a shortage of mental health hospitals and professionals. In some general hospitals, there are psychiatric units that lack basic amenities like beds.
The case of Palestine is also similar: there is a lack of resources, funds and services, along with the stigma relating to mental health. The total number of psychiatrists in the West Bank is 20, and the total number of nurses is 17. Each community mental health centre or clinic contains mostly one psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker in addition to one not well-trained or specialised mental health nurse, working with a total population of nearly three million.
There is also an increase in interstate and civil wars and related physiological impacts on civil society. More related insights can be found in the article, Why is Interstate War Increasing in the World?
Governments should take the necessary steps to meet the mental health requirements in conflict zones. Comprehensive mental health plans should be introduced, with proper training for mental health professionals at all levels.
Mental health institutional structures must be strengthened further. Above all, people must be made aware of the importance of mental health so that the stigma lingering around mental health can be erased.
About The Author
By Ardra R
Ardra R is a Political Science graduate from Lady Shri Ram College for Women and is pursuing her master’s in Politics and International Relations from Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam. She has worked as a research associate for various organizations, including the Raisina House, NIICE, Nepal, WICCI India-France Council, and the International Institute of Justice and Police Sciences.
Ardra has always been keen and passionate about breaking her shell and being involved in innovative arenas that challenge her personally and intellectually. She is also a vocal feminist and mental health advocate.
She can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org