Post-Traumatic Stress Is a Normal Response to Crime

Cape Times (South Africa), February 22, 2007 | Go to article overview

Post-Traumatic Stress Is a Normal Response to Crime


BYLINE: Barbara Holtmann

In recent weeks, the debate about crime and violence has spiralled in the public domain. There is no doubt that such a debate is inevitable and has value if we can find solutions to the unacceptably high levels of victimisation experienced in South Africa today.

But the nature of the debate has not necessarily been useful.

We have seen endless exposure of individual crime victims on public platforms, in the print and electronic media and on websites.

Graphic descriptions of violence accompany photographs of injuries beneath headlines that are hard to read without feeling afraid and angry.

However, this exposure, while highlighting the national problem of crime, can undermine the victim's personal battle - perhaps even our functioning as a society.

This is not to say that there is no healing value for the victim in talking about what happened.

But it is important that their story reaches an attentive and helpful listener. Victim support volunteers receive intense training so that they can be as understanding as possible when hearing stories that are often deeply disturbing.

They are thus able to identify various signs of trauma and pinpoint the type of counselling that is required.

Research has shown that, for a victim to pour out a story on, for instance, a website, is not useful in any way, just as it is not useful to do so on talk radio interviews or at social gatherings.

It may feel momentarily cathartic, but it may also trigger other confusing and potentially damaging feelings. It will not provide any mechanism for recovery or empowerment.

When the media encourage victims to talk publicly of their experiences, they violate the victims' rights to privacy and protection at a time when they are very vulnerable.

As a result, the victims may make decisions that are not sensible.

Post-traumatic stress is a normal response to an abnormal event.

Victims in a traumatised state experience uncharacteristic mood swings, find it hard to plan for the future and are depressed, anxious and often angry or vengeful.

Their recall of the event is often chaotic and they may suffer short-term memory loss.

They need the help of professional counsellors who are trained to respond with respect - preserving the victim's dignity.

Outsiders may ask victims their opinions on crime, violence, the police, bail conditions and sentencing.

Being a victim does not make anyone an expert on these issues and it is deeply unfair to demand a response.

It adds nothing to the debate to know that a family who has suffered loss wants a more punitive form of justice. …

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