Preparing the global citizenry for the risk of mental injury

By Edward H. Taylor, Ph.D.

Protecting a country in part depends on its citizens understanding the motivation and purpose of Terrorist organizations. Without an informed population prevention and recovery after an attack is more chaotic, and requires a longer recovery period. Unlike disconnected “lone-wolves,” organized terrorist cells aim to defeat governments, destroy the dominant cultures, and/or build a utopian society out of the ashes of destruction. To accomplish their tactics these terrorists in part aim to frighten individuals to a point that they believe that the current government structures cannot ensure their safety.

A terrorist attack creates a ripple effect across individuals, the economy, and government policies. Besides causing death and physical disabilities for a segment of the population, countless others will experience short-term acute stress reactions. Psychologically, individuals will be able to more quickly control their anxiety, if they understand the limitations of terrorism and trust that the government can generally control the situation and protect them. Most individuals will, in a reasonably short period of time, move from shaken fear, to caution, and finally back to their previous life style. Some however, will modify their life style, and attempt to limit the probability of exposure to future attacks. These individuals may reduce or stop going to arena and concert events, or only travel by air or rail only when absolutely necessary. Others may reduce their attendance and travel not because of lingering anxiety, but rather to avoid the annoyance of security checks, long lines. And then a smaller group of individuals will  require a significant number of long-term resources, and may develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  These people may also experience long-term bouts of depression.

From a strategic perspective, terrorists are successful when citizens withdraw from society, whether from anxiety, mental trauma, or beliefs that the costs and inconveniences are too high. Furthermore, longer term life-style changes deplete the economy and signal a belief that the government cannot protect individual citizens

Violence is particularly costly to individuals who are vulnerable for developing mental disorders. Highly sensitive individuals may be at greater risk for experiencing Post Traumatic Stress, panic attacks, generalized anxiety, or depression. Moreover, we can hypothesize with some certainty that a terrorist attack will trigger those with existing mental disorders into more severe symptoms. By definition, depression creates feelings of hopelessness and a sense that there are no solutions. Unexpected violence anywhere in the country can escalate depression and usher in for some suicidal thoughts.

Therefore, an important part of protecting the country is a national plan that recognizes that systematic terrorism will significantly increase mental health treatment and care expenditures, as well as physical health care costs. Mental illness often explains why individuals fail to follow healthy living guidelines. As a result, they are more at risk for developing diabetes, heart, and other illnesses. Moreover, as mental disorders rise, then the nation’s indirect costs across the economic spectrum rises.  However, many citizens can limit their emotional risk from a terrorist attack, if the government appears prepared and able to care for those in crisis.

*Modified from forthcoming book by E.H. Taylor entitled Pathways to Becoming a Terrorist.



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