The spate of kidnappings for ransom, across the country is a major source of concern. While the outcome can be unpredictable, ranging from loss of lives to the safe return of the kidnapped victim; it is imperative that we gain some understanding of the psychological trauma involved for the victims and their friends/families. This is an important starting point for us all, so we are better equipped to help and support, after they have been safely released. Subsequently, we will address issues pertaining to bereavement as a sequelae of kidnapping or crime.
What is psychological trauma?
Trauma is derived from the Greek word for ‘wound’. Psychological trauma occurs when we are exposed to extraordinarily stressful events that shatter our sense of security, making you feel helpless in a dangerous or life threatening situation. Thus, such situations result in a psychological wound or injury, as a result of the traumatic experiences, involving a threat to our life or safety. It is often accompanied by difficulty with coping or functioning normally following a particularlytraumatic event or experience. Everyone’s reaction is different, but the majority of those who experience a potentially traumatic event will recover well – with the support of family and friends,and will not experience any long-term problems.
What is the psychological impact of kidnapping?
The diverse spectrum of emotional reactions in the aftermath of kidnappings usually vary from person to person. But they can be categorized broadly into two categories:
A). Emotional reactions: These include feelings of confusion and disbelief, with questions such as ‘why did this happen to me?’. Shock, denial, anger, anxiety, feelings of guilt – ‘maybe if I had not travelled that day or if I had gone the day before, this may not have happened?’ Others may experience shame, feelings of sadness, hopelessness, social withdrawal from society, feeling betrayed and having difficulty trusting people again.
B). Physical symptoms: May include difficulty falling asleep, or having recurrent nightmares, fatigue and tiredness, muscle tension, being on edge and jumping easily at loud or sudden noises, racing heart beats and feeling numb.
All of these symptoms frequently last for some days and then subside, but some of these symptoms may persist for several months and then gradually fade away over time. Cues and reminders of such traumatic experiences may trigger memories which come flooding back and may be distressing to them. But again, the intensity dwindles over time.
So, in the light of the foregoing, how exactly should families, the society and the government deal with the emotional and psychological reactions to the nightmare of kidnapping?
1. Reduce publicity and enhance privacy: When someone who has been kidnapped, eventually returns home safely, our communal instinct is for all well-wishers, family members and friends to throng the place and rejoice with the family. Some would say, let’s throw a party and celebrate this victory and homecoming. But these steps are ill-advised. And at the very least, should be curtailed, if it cannot be eliminated. And most certainly not in this climate of Covid-19.
Such individuals need time alone and with close loved ones to work through the normal grief reaction and gradually come to terms with what they had just gone through. They need to gradually re-orient themselves to normal life and become grounded again. They can hardly do so if the house is completely taken over by visitors and well-wishers.
2. Ensure comprehensive medical check-up: Being held in captivity comes with health challenges. From under-nourishment to the possibility of infections – a comprehensive physical check-up is crucial.
3. Psychological therapies: The range of adverse and often traumatic experiences that the victims have gone through is likely to leave emotional scars that may be deep-seated. The least of these emotional scars is a reluctance to ever trust another human being again. They may also be going through emotional turmoil – anxiety, depression; as well as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) such as recurrent nightmares, getting easily startled and frightened, avoiding any reminders of where and what they have gone through, memory flashbacks e.t.c.
Family members too – may also be wracked by guilt and a sense of failure that they were helpless and could not protect their loved ones from such negative experiences. Children, siblings, other family members and friends, colleagues, neighbours – all of these categories may also have concerns and worries, and be unsure of how to react or behave. Thus, the entire family and loved ones may require psychological help to navigate all of their uncertainties and worries.
4. Social rehabilitation: A change of environment with loved ones may be helpful to allow them touch base and benefit from the support and unconditional love of their close ones.
5. The Government: Security of lives and property of all citizens is a fundamental responsibility of government that must not be shirked. Citizens cannot afford to live in daily fear and anxiety over this menace.
Dr Jibril Abdulmalik
Tribune Article for the column “Your Mental Health & You”
Thursday, 27th January 2022