Family members of missing passengers on the Sewol ferry expressed anger and outrage due to psychological trauma, according to a therapist who volunteered to help families on Jindo Island.
The emotional stress has been escalating in the gymnasium on Jindo Island where families gathered to hear news about their loved ones. Furious about the little progress made in the search effort, some threw water bottles and shouted at officials during briefings.
According to therapist Jeong Gyeong-sook, the families are at the most sensitive emotional stage.
“We tried to set up a joint psychological consultation unit on the site, but things have become so intense and sensitive. (We had to scrap the plan),” she said in a phone interview with The Korea Herald. Jeong and a couple of others from Dongjak Wee Center, a public psychological clinic in Seoul, have been helping families cope with emotional stress since Friday.
She is also a member of the Association for Psychological Support in Disasters, which dispatches therapists to disasters areas.
“The families are not ready to accept any ‘facts,’ but when the facts turn out to be wrong they get so angry,” said Jeong. “Especially when information released from the government briefings is creating confusion, their emotional stress is expressed as a form of anger and outrage.”
Jeong said psychological treatment for survivors of the sunken ferry should be a priority, but those involved in the rescue work and administrative work at the site also need to be watched closely.
“The anger expressed by the family members is directed at them. Their psychological stress is also a danger.”
Among the few who have visited for therapy so far was a mother whose child is among the missing. “She looked so weak after what she’s been through. We offered her emotional support with some warm clothes,” Jeong said. Another visitor was a woman whose nephew was among the missing. She asked Jeong how to deal with her sister, who still had high hopes for the rescue effort, while her own hopes were dwindling.
“But most of the time we come to them with food and necessary items,” said Jeong.
The vice principal of Danwon High School was found dead in an apparent suicide due to the guilt at having survived the sinking. The educator, surnamed Kang, left a note saying, “Surviving alone is too painful,” and accepted full responsibility for the accident.
“I heard the vice principal didn’t receive any psychological treatment after the rescue. Not just survivors, but the family members and those involved in the rescue work need psychological care,” she noted.
The Gyeonggi provincial government and the city government of Ansan have established a team of therapists to help those affected by the incident recover from emotional stress, according to officials on Sunday. It will provide psychological treatment not only to the survivors and families of the victims, but also to students and citizens among the general public suffering strong emotions.
“We are providing emotional support and care to those left at home while their family members are out looking for the missing,” said Hwang Jeong-eun, spokesperson for the Gyeonggi Province Joint Disaster Management Office.
Meanwhile, angry relatives of missing passengers clashed with police early Sunday morning on Jindo Island, South Jeolla Province, near the site of the sinking, after police blocked them from moving to Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul.
About 70 family members of victims who went missing when the Sewol ferry sank had planned to visit the presidential office to protest the slow progress in the ongoing search-and-rescue operation, and the government’s sloppy response to the accident. As of 4 p.m., the death toll sat at 56.
The families, however, called off the protest later in the morning and agreed to hold talks with Prime Minister Chung Hong-won. Later in the day, Chung met family members at Jindo Gymnasium, which has been serving as a shelter for the families. For two hours, Chung and the family members discussed how to raise the sunken vessel to the surface, according to officials. The prime minister made no comments as he was leaving the gym, they added.
The government has been under fire for inflating the number of survivors on the first day of the accident. The numbers of rescued and missing kept changing as the government had been unable to figure out the exact number of passengers.
Families have expressed rage over the lack of progress with the state-led diving operations. Despite risking their lives, it took divers five days to retrieve the first body from inside the ship.
By Lee Woo-young, Cho Chung-un