Terror, trauma and identity

What is it doing to our nation, I am often asked. What should we say to our children?

Dr Ayesha Mian April 05, 2016
The writer is an associate professor and chair Department of Psychiatry at The Aga Khan University

Yet another carnage, another pillage, that has attacked the very core of what a nation rests its dreams on — their children, their tomorrow. The sequence is always the same — a suicide bomber blows himself up; multitudes dead, injured and maimed; emergency responses, national plans, endless analyses, expert advice and then another trauma. We barely seem to go through the anniversary of one event, when another befalls us, so that the cycle of trauma continues, unabashedly, relentlessly.

What is it doing to our nation, I am often asked. What should we say to our children? How should we respond? Should we send them to parks? Should we send them to school? Are we all suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder? At times, I am able to provide an answer; yet at other times, I cannot help but shake my head.

There is burgeoning international and — to a certain extent — national literature available, that focuses on trauma response in children and adolescents. Trauma can strike in different forms, be it natural or man made, and children as well as entire families get affected by it. The child psychiatrists and trauma experts will all reiterate the same general principles of limiting trauma exposure post the event, keeping communication open, providing safe avenues for expression, minimising parental anxiety and normalising lives as much as possible. It is important to speak the truth to our children — that something negative has happened, but we would do our best to ensure their safety, focus on what is positive around us, whatever little there may be.

It is devastating nonetheless. The trauma keeps repeating itself. The truth, that we will ensure our children’s safety, begins to sound like a lie. And the promises that we make to our loved ones are broken, repeatedly. There is a hope every time that this would be the last time; and that hope is disappointed — time and time again.

In psychological terminology, we have clearly descended into the realm of chronic trauma; in some cases, individuals and whole families are suffering from complex trauma, which is described as varied and multiple traumas, often by trusted individuals. On the trauma scale, moving from calmness to vigilance, alarm, fear and then terror, people subjected to repeated trauma are unable to move back to the original self and often stay fearful or alarmed as these emotions become their new baseline. Children suffering from a single traumatic event may become clingy, anxious, acutely sad or irritable with decreased attention and concentration. However, those suffering from chronic trauma start showing disruption in their cognitive, emotional, and moral development that may present very differently in children and adolescents.

Amidst this terror and uncertainty though, it is imperative that we talk about our personal and national narrative. It is all good and dandy to try to give our children strong attachments and caregivers’ support to minimise the effects of the trauma. But considering how the world around us peels apart, one ideology at a time, our children struggle for identity and meaning and a higher purpose. Shelled by conflicting accounts of a religion in siege, Western conspiracies, economic depravity, faith apologists and budding atheists, our children and adolescents find themselves adrift and confused. We have to look into the mirror, each one of us: closely, objectively and without mercy. Our history is blemished in blood and violence. Perhaps we are reaping the fruits of what we sowed. It is time we faced our children with brutal honesty and courage, acknowledge the mistakes we made, recognise the reasons we handed over our faith to zealots and seek redemption. Perhaps then, and only then, would we be ready to make a change. Perhaps then and only then, would we be able to save our children and our future.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 6th,  2016.

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