PTSD following a terrorist attack

PTSD following a terrorist attack

You don’t have to live in a war zone or be under the constant threat of terrorist violence to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A single, dramatic and life-threatening incident can stimulate this serious mental health condition.

Let’s be clear on another thing too. You don’t have to be at the centre of a terrorist attack or to be injured to suffer debilitating PTSD. Witnesses – who are outwardly unscathed – often need help too. This article explores whether this is adequately addressed in the UK.

Terrorism and its wider impact

The US had a globally discussed incident in early 2021, which many classed as ‘domestic terrorism’. The Capitol building in Washington DC was under siege. Five people died in the mayhem, and one police officer is believed to have taken his life soon after. How many staff and government representatives had their mental health fractured by this armed assault in the middle of a Pandemic?

In the UK, our recent history is sadly peppered with incidents of terrorism. Such as May 2017, when a suicide bomber killed 23 children and adults at the Manchester Arena. 800 concert-goers received medical treatment. The number who suffered psychological damage could be in the thousands.

In July 2005, the London bombings brought the tragedy of 52 deaths to the capital and left 700 people injured. How many more were left mentally scarred and struggled to move on fully?

More recently in November 2019, five people were stabbed by a man walking around the London Bridge area wearing what proved to be a fake suicide bomb vest. Two victims died, but many survivors could have been left with PTSD.

The list goes on.

So, how much help is available to prevent and treat PTSD following a terrorist incident?

Early interventions and gaps

One of the UK’s vital support mechanisms in this field is the Victim Support organisation.

They reported: “The lack of a widely recognised definition of a ‘victim’ of terrorism is putting at risk survivors receiving the emotional and practical help they need after being caught up in an attack.”

The VS research showed that over 93% of survivors of terrorist incidents reported lingering impacts like difficulties sleeping, anger, anxiety, flashbacks and being deeply distressed when reminded of the event.

In the immediate aftermath of major incidents, the NHS has become adept at setting up specialist screening and outreach programmes to support the mental and emotional health of victims. Indeed, their own staff often require this help due to the pressures they are put under. An example of NHS intervention is the Greater Manchester Resilience Hub, supporting those caught in the arena bombing and the Manchester Arndale Stabbings of Oct 2019.

Then, there are the UK police officers who work at terrorist crime scenes. According to a University of Cambridge study, almost one in five police officers are suffering from PTSD, including many cases of ‘complex PTSD’, where symptoms harden due to repeated exposure to traumatic events.

Are they getting the help they need?

The research project showed that less than a third of officers with potential PTSD had received information to help them understand the issue, making it unlikely treatment had been accessed. Also, the report said: “Over half of our respondents said they had insufficient time to process incidents before being sent back out on the next call.”

What more can be done?

The number of British deaths from terrorist activities is widely available and much lamented. Information about that and the work to prevent terrorism is included in the Government paper ‘Terrorism in Great Britain: The Statistics” (March 2020).

What is harder to find is the progress of a robust, UK-wide multi-agency approach to tackling PTSD resulting from terrorist acts. As shown, even the understanding of what constitutes a ‘victim’ and the true measure of the mental health ripple effect, needs considerable work.

Which is why our role is so important.

We are the only UK charity dedicated to raising awareness of PTSD and all of its causes, the symptoms to look out for, and the treatments available in the UK – no matter the trauma that caused the PTSD.


Terrorism in Great Britain: the statistics

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Treatments for PTSD

It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.