The Health and Social Consequences of the 2001 Foot and Mouth Epidemic in North Cumbria
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Kai Eriksons's contribition

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Professor Kai Erikson from Yale University has been studying the effects of disasters on human communities for over 30 years. He is the author of numerous books including A New Species of Trouble: Explorations in Disaster, Trauma, and Community. This describes how different communities have endured modern disasters. He highlights how their experiences need to be articulated and heard if communities are to maintain confidence in government, in society and in themselves.

The following extracts are taken from Professor Erikson’s Voices of Experience conference presentation: Reflections on Disaster and Trauma.

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I visited a disaster once and as was my habit, I talked to the people who felt that they had been injured by that disaster and asked them what they felt about this and what they felt about that. My reason for doing so was to get an assessment as to whether or not I would be helpful in what they thought… the lawsuit that they were beginning to mount. When I was done with that, I did what Professors always do. I said, “well I’ve asked you a lot of questions. Maybe you’d have a question of me.” I didn’t really think they would but every hand in the room went up and their question, phrased differently, was always the same: “Are we unusual? Is there something about what has just happened to us that makes us different to other people?” One person even said, “am I mad in thinking as I do?” This is a general finding that I would like to share with you, that in one way or another, at one level of consciousness or another, almost everyone who goes through a disaster, shares that experience with the people they live with and then have…….sometimes don’t even share their feelings with the people they live with. So the people are sometimes very surprised, to find out how widely felt, something that is deep in their heart is felt by other people and are very surprised to find out that people who’ve lived other disasters, react in very much the same way as they do here. I think your expression [turning to Maggie] was perfect, which is, ‘what happens to people is an absolutely normal reaction to an event that is itself abnormal, "it’s extraordinary and we don’t know enough about.’

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By individual trauma, I’m talking about the things that many people alluded to this morning. It’s a sense of vulnerability; a sense of being out of control; a sense of numbness in the sense of not really feeling everything that’s going on around; a sense of despair. The clinical terms for this are depression and anxiety and the oddest expression in the English language, in my opinion, ‘post traumatic stress disorder’, which is many syllables added together which, to my mind, don’t mean very much. In addition to all of that, the strong sense that something is pending, something is going to happen, that the world is organised in such a way that something else that’s ruinous, is very likely to happen, which I take it to be, the expression used all over the world, is the ‘time-bomb’ and another I heard this morning, I hadn’t heard before, but it’s even better, the world is like ‘an unexploded bomb’, which is a very common feeling.

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The third point I would want to make, is that the level of trauma that people are likely to experience as a result of a disaster, has a lot to do with the degree to which they feel that other human beings were responsible for what happened to them, or responsible for what happened to them after the disaster took place. It’s too obvious for me to even bring up but if some other people who live in your general community, drop toxic fumes under your house, that you’re going to be angry at them, so I won’t even mention that. It’s not that relevant to what I understand about [what’s] going on here. What’s not so obvious but equally important, in my opinion is, that the sense of injury that you get from a disaster is all the sharper if people come to feel, if the survivors come to feel that people around them respond with what seems to them, with a kind of indifference or a kind of denial. If they act as if something, if nothing of consequence really happened, or if they imply, by the way they speak or the way that they behave, that they think the survivors are over-reacting, or a little bit hysterical, or in any event, not responding in the way people ought to.

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A third and far most important one and I obviously have no idea how well it reflects what’s going on here or not, is the degree to which a line is drawn around the affected community that makes the people in it, feel more different from the people outside the line and the people outside the line, to feel more different than the people in. Now that’s partly, that sometimes takes place because the people in it, come to think that they experience life in at least a somewhat different way, than the people outside that line. It’s because people within the line, have shared an experience which brings them kind of a feeling of communality that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

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The list of things that people almost never understand in a disaster, begins when people have a strong affection for things that other people do not. For example, animals. I’ve heard when I came here that the expression was often used by people who live outside that line and who pay attention to that line, is that, “well these animals were going to be killed anyway”, which to me, even as a stranger coming a long distance away, made me shudder. There are examples of this that I’ve seen in other disasters. You may not appreciate the metaphor but I’ve seen it most when people try to describe to other people, what it’s been like to lose a home in which they’ve invested a great part of themselves. What it is like is that there are ways in which human beings have a sense of themselves which gets broadened by the things that they own, the things they work with, the things that they live with and if those things are taken away, their sense of self itself, is greatly reduced. It’s as if a part of themselves, is taken away. This is true if you have brought children up in a house; if you were yourself brought up in a house; if you have spent hours and hours fixing that house, if you have organised your lives around the shape of that house, to lose it, is to lose a large part of yourself. Any people who have gone through that experience, will easily understand, as many other people will not, what it means to say, if you lose a herd, that a part of the self has simply gone.

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The other thing that people can be sure not to understand, is, because we ourselves don’t know how to describe it very well, is what I would like to end with and it is, that the world out there, looks at a disaster like the one that took place here, or like any of the disasters that I’ve visited in my time and gives it a date. The beginning date is when the flood began and the ending date is when the flood went down. The beginning date is when the earthquake started and the ending date is when it’s over. It’s usually a day, two days, three days. If it’s a fire, it maybe only an hour or two. Then people talk about a thing called the ‘aftermath’, that expression was used this morning. But I think the person who talked about the aftermath would feel perfectly comfortable with what I said was, this is not the way disasters are experienced by people who were there. The disaster is not over. The disaster won’t be over for a long time. The disease is still upon us. The flood has never abated; the storm has never stopped. The earthquake is still going on. That’s a very hard thing to explain to somebody else but in the human terms of having to cope with this, it’s been my experience in the places that I’ve been, that the best way to describe the feeling is, the feeling of suspension, the feeling that things are still there. The feeling that there’s something bad may yet happen. The thing isn’t over yet and it becomes ‘over’ when it becomes satisfied, when the mind of those who experience it, comes to deal with it.

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