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16 September 2017

Parsons Green: Does the UK’s sustained terror threat affect our psychology?

The mental health implications of living in the most sustained period of terrorist activity in England for 50 years.

By Anoosh Chakelian

On Friday morning, the fifth terror attack in Britain this year hit the London Underground at Parsons Green Tube station, southwest London. Twenty-two people are injured, and the previous four incidents saw 36 people killed.

This means that England is now living in the most sustained period of terrorist activity since the early Seventies IRA bombings, according to BBC analysis.

There was one attack, in which the MP Jo Cox was murdered, last year, and one at Leytonstone Tube station in east London the year before that. The UK has certainly seen a stark change in terrorism activity this year, so when does that begin to affect a nation’s psychology?

The general public

Although the flurry of the 24-hour news cycle and social media coverage can create panic – and Donald Trump has been publicly jumping to exclamation mark-pocked conclusions – repeated terror incidents can actually have the opposite effect on a population.

“There is often an assumption that society could crack under the strain of terrorist attack,” says Professor Andrew Silke, the Director of Terrorism Studies at the University of East London, who has studied this subject. “[But] the general psychological research is that society overall is surprisingly resilient in the face of terrorism.”

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Professor Silke has looked into the psychology of Israel and Northern Ireland during times of sustained terror, and found that people develop an even stronger resilience in these circumstances. He says there is a “threshold”, after which the “resilience factor kicks in”.

“Once terrorist attacks start becoming more frequent, people become habituated and almost treat them as normal, to an extent,” he says. “It’s when terrorist attacks are actually very infrequent, so quite rare and quite unpredictable that an individual terrorist attack tends to have a bigger psychological impact.”

Britain has not yet reached this threshold, but after five attacks in a year by September, it’s in a middle ground. Certainly the element of surprise when an attack such as the one at Parsons Green happens has diminished.

The psychology behind resilience is partly because of the “community impact” of being under sustained threat. “It’s what was referred to as the Blitz Spirit type thing,” says Professor Silke. “People feel more tied into their communities, there’s a shared sense of threat, and there’s a shared sense that we need to pull together.”

An increased sense of community has a “fantastic impact on psychological health”, according to Professor Silke, and this outweighs the negative psychological impacts of living through a period of terror.

The victims

The Chairman of Psychiatry at NYU Dr Charles Marmar, who has worked as a consultant to the Metropolitan Police and citizens in the London area on stress, law enforcement and terrorism, finds that “the natural course following such an incident” at Parsons Green is “towards recovery with time, not towards illness” – for both people directly involved and Brits generally.

“Most people in London are sufficiently stress-inoculated, if you will, Londoners are strong people and British culture is very strong when dealing with trauma,” he tells me.

However, he stresses that the “greatest concern” remains for those injured, their families, fellow passengers, people in close proximity, and the emergency services involved. “The people who are in the immediate event, or directly linked, are the ones who need to have support, psychological first aid, monitoring, and care to make sure they don’t go on to develop acute stress symptoms.”

Dr Marmar also warns against “indifference to the suffering” of those in the general population whose mental health problems are exacerbated by incidents like terrorist attacks.

While he points out that the UK has a “very strong culture for dealing with terrorism”, he says this “stoicism which is part of British culture” is not always helpful. “Sometimes it makes it harder for people to express their vulnerability, or there might be more stigma associated with having emotional problems,” he warns.

Ultimately, he finds the UK’s “population strategy” in dealing with terrorism impressive, and calls on the media to reflect this, rather than scaremongering. “The big picture is resilience, stoicism, and the ability to accept the reality of the dangerous world we live in. You had it during the IRA attacks, and in World War II with German rocket attacks.”

If you’re affected by any of the mental health issues mentioned in this piece you can call the Mind helpline on 0300 123 3393.