The purpose of terrorism is not a single act of wanton destruction; it is the reaction it seeks to provoke. An economic collapse, backlash, hatred, division and elimination of tolerance until societies cease to reconcile their differences and become defined by them.
The Pakistani Government has taken efforts to respond to terrorism by establishing the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) and conducting anti-terrorism legislations leading to subsequent policies such as the National Action Plan (NAP) or the National Internal Security Policy (NISP).
The striking thing in this definition is that beyond the physical damage that the terrorists intend to cause, their main purpose is to have a psychological outcome. They target a nation’s values, unity and its functional bodies. More than the destruction and deaths that occur, the undue effect on the psychological and social behavior of the victim is immense. The Pakistani Government has taken efforts to respond to terrorism by establishing the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) and conducting anti-terrorism legislations leading to subsequent policies such as the National Action Plan (NAP) or the National Internal Security Policy (NISP). However, little attention has been paid to the formulation of policies regarding the deterioration of the psychological and mental health of people post-terrorism.
The most significant and long-term impact of terrorism is the one on the psychological health of the victims, yet it is minimally addressed. From among the general public, children are most likely to pick up on unhealthy trends and negative behaviors. Similarly, acts of terrorism and violence leave deeper imprints on minds of children, who are unable to absorb the shock at a given situation.
Children face acute stress and trauma because of terrorist attacks. Such tragedies cause fear and feeling of helplessness. Excessive stress system in a child can have harmful effects on a child’s thinking and learning capabilities. It may also disrupt the development of body organs including the brain. Directly or indirectly, terrorism affects the psychological behavior of children.
The attack on Army Public School was one of the most brutal incidents of violence to ever take place in Pakistan which consequently left a strong bearing on the psychological stability of the Pakistani nation. Especially on the mental health of children and their custodians, as far as the sense of security and protection is concerned.
Research generally finds an association between watching media coverage of terrorist attacks and stress symptoms.
Ways through which terrorism affects the mental health of children
Many people are unable to resist news coverage of terrorist attacks. As horrific as they are to watch on television and read about in newspapers and magazines, most still find it nearly impossible to turn away. It is difficult to know why the information is so hard to resist. Some say that people are hoping for information because they are fearful of future attacks and want to be prepared; others say that people are watching and reading in an effort to digest and process the event. While according to others the media is intentionally creating enticing images almost like those seen in an action movie. Whatever the reason, it is important to understand the impact on the community that this type of exposure may have.
Research generally finds an association between watching media coverage of terrorist attacks and stress symptoms. However, most studies cannot answer the important question of whether watching television causes more stress or if people who have severe stress reactions are the ones who choose to watch more television coverage of the event.
According to Schuster, a national survey of adults and children in the US, conducted after September 11th, 2001, deduced that three to five days after the attack on the World Trade Center, people reported that those who watched an average eight hours of television related to this attack had more substantial stress as compared to those who watched less coverage related to this attack. In the same survey for children and parents in the US, the children who watched an average three hours coverage related to the attack had reported more stress as compared to those who were less exposed to the attack.
Terrorism has changed the social dynamics of Pakistan where security has become the biggest concern for the people. It has given rise to social distress among people and left a deep impact on the general population of the country. Incidents of terrorism showed on television, social media, and print media has affected children in a negative manner.
According to the World Health Organization, 10% of children who experience terrorist attacks have serious psychological issues and experience physical illness due to stress related hormones which mostly affect the cardiac system. Serious trauma in the early childhood period has a negative influence on all the domains of development of a child, these include psychological, physical, social, emotional and also moral development.
The National Internal Security Policy (NISP) passed in 2014 has adopted a five-pronged counter-terrorism approach to dismantle, contain, prevent, educate and reintegrate. NISP establishes two response plans in order to counter terrorism.
Army Public School (APS) attack and its impact on mental health
Pakistan is undoubtedly an overly legislated country; however, a meager display of implementation can be noticed along the horizon of governmental efforts to build a national narrative against terrorism. The National Internal Security Policy (NISP) passed in 2014 has adopted a five-pronged counter-terrorism approach to dismantle, contain, prevent, educate and reintegrate. NISP establishes two response plans in order to counter terrorism. In one of the two response plans called the Composite Response Plan (CRP), there is emphasis on rehabilitation of individuals who are directly or indirectly affected by terrorism.
An evaluation survey was conducted to gauge the opinion of parents of school going children post the traumatic incident at APS, Peshawar through objective methods such as a questionnaire, to assemble impartial and relevant findings by a researcher in Lahore, Pakistan. It illustrated that terrorism affects the mental health of children. The survey was conducted using a self-structured questionnaire and data was collected from the parents. An interview was also taken from a child psychologist and for the classification of varying effects of terrorism discussions were also conducted with parents and psychologists.
According to the survey, 90% of the parents felt fearful of the security of their children. Due to exposure to frequent acts of terrorism in the city of their residence, they had a continuous feeling of uncertainty. Children were found to be suffering with severe trauma and had often socially isolated themselves. They became aggressive and their willingness to go out disrupted, resulting in psychological instability.
Aggressive behavior was noticed in the affected children with an impact on their motivation and willingness to attend school. The direct or indirect victim of exposure to terrorism was observed to engage less in other activities, impacting the normal functioning of the individual in a society. About 70% of the parents agreed that they observed change in the behavioral conduct of their child after the terrorist attack.
The main indirect source of communication of such horrific events is the social media and the television. The repetitive disturbing news on television had a negative impact on the mental health of children after the APS attack. The rise in the use of social media by young adults also resulted to an increased exposure to the acts of terrorism causing a long-lasting impact on the psychological health of these individuals.
The ACE study shows that traumatic events have immediate and long lasting adverse effects on children. It affects their mental health. Difficulty in learning is the immediate negative effect on cognitive health accompanied by aggressive behavior. Constant watching of threatening news increases the rate of child’s heart and blood pressure.
The research generally finds an association between media coverage of traumatic events and stress symptoms. There are many horrifying pictures of terrorism on social media and the internet which disturbs the mental health. News related to terror mostly affects the younger children as compared to the older children and mostly those under the age of 10 are expected to have severe mental disorders. They deal with the feelings of helplessness and insecurity.
Terrorism in Pakistan has had a significantly negative social and psychological impact, primarily on the young generation. Pakistan has suffered through this menace for years, which has caused many to die and others to be physically crippled.
92% of the respondents in a survey conducted recently in Pakistan were in favor whereas 8% of the people did not consider terrorism as an important problem in Pakistan. Indeed, terrorism is one of the most serious threats not just from the perspective of national security, it has a long term social and psychological impact that cannot be terminated through generic counter-terrorism efforts.
Therefore, the Government as well as social activists should collaborate their efforts to enhance the training opportunities for mental health and to refer children in need of mental health service after experiences of traumatic events. Families should be provided facilities for the recovery of the victimized children. Children should also be provided with more emotional support and a safe environment by strengthening counter-terrorism laws and working on their efficient implementation.
Syeda Aminah Gilani is a Lecturer of Political Science, and has initiated an academic program on Terrorism and Counter Terrorism at the Kinnaird College for Women in collaboration with National Counter Terrorism Authority Pakistan (NACTA).