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[Ferry Disaster] Scars from Sewol wreck may run deep

Ferry tragedy could have psychological, economic impacts

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Published : 2014-04-25 22:26
Updated : 2014-04-25 22:27

Korea is struggling to extricate itself from deep sorrow following the deadly conclusion of what started out as a carefree field trip for Danwon High School juniors last week.

More than 300 students of the school were involved in the sinking of the Sewol ferry, and the deaths reported so far are taking a toll on the nation.

Psychological experts believe the grief will not be easy to shake, and that the pain of the memory will have a lasting impact on society.

“Such tragic accidents tend to have long-lasting and agonizing psychological impacts on the lives of the survivors, their families, friends, acquaintances, and also the public,” said Kim Byung-su, a psychologist at Asan Medical Center.

The impact was already felt when the high school vice principal committed suicide due allegedly to remorse after he had been rescued, followed by another suicide attempt by one of the rescued crew members.

Experts said those close in age to the student victims may also suffer from emotional distress as teenagers are usually more sensitive about their surroundings than adults and thus could be more deeply affected.

Other serious problems such as depression and a suicide wave ― called the Werther effect ― could spread across the nation.

“Once things clear up and people get back to their lives, the pain of the incident could truly start to set in and become increasingly unbearable,” the psychologist said.

Some other experts said patients who had been undergoing therapy to fight depression appeared to be under the weather more often in the wake of the ferry disaster.

Adding to the sense of doom and gloom is the repetitive news coverage of the incident that at times turned out to contain errors.

“The media is obliged to report strictly based on facts, and parents should try not to expose their children too much to news reports about funerals or the recovered bodies of the victims,” the Korean Neuropsychiatric Association said in a statement.

Impact on the economy

The heartbreaking loss of lives will also likely leave an impact on Korea’s economy.

“Even though the sinking of the Sewol ferry is not likely to drag down the economic growth rate in the long term, there is a possibility that the disaster will affect short-term economic figures,” Nah Seung-ho, a senior economist at the Bank of Korea, told a local news outlet.

“Cases in point are 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. when the overall public consumption nose-dived after many lives were claimed,” he added.

The economic impact is already being felt across industries as corporate Korea joined the wave of condolences instead of going forward with their marketing events.

Samsung Group, the biggest conglomerate in Korea, decided not to hold its TED-like event this month, which the firm holds on a regular basis.

LG Group postponed a gala show featuring gymnast Son Yeon-jae until the latter half of this year, and its affiliate LG Household & Health Care last week canceled a fan meeting for Kim Soo-hyun, a rising actor starring in the hit TV show “My Love from the Star.”

Korea’s three major mobile carriers ― SK Telecom, KT and LG Uplus ― also joined the mourning by scaling down the size of their planned events.

Smartphone maker Pantech has postponed the release of its new flagship smartphone.

Post-crisis resilience

The latest ferry disaster, while being one of the most tragic naval accidents to late, may have been a learning experience in Korea in terms of crisis management.

Korea can learn lessons not just from these accidents at home, but also from numerous overseas accidents.

The Boston Marathon, which was held Monday, is one. Around 36,000 athletes, including some participants of last year’s marathon, ran in one of the world’s renowned athletic events, and 1 million spectators are said to have turned out along the route to cheer on the participants and show courage and resilience.

Even though many victims and their families are still suffering after the bombings, they seem to be recovering from the nightmares with the support of the local communities and authorities.

The Boston Public Health Commission, a public health agency, has been running an ongoing support group for the survivors and has maintained close contact with them since the terrorist attack.

It has also started offering a series of free drop-in counseling events and community forums for anyone affected by the bombings.

According to local mental health experts, consistent support for people affected by tragic events is more important than anything else in helping them recover.

“It is necessary to provide psychological counseling for survivors, their families and bereaved families in order to prevent further chaos,” said Kim Young-hoon, chief director of the Korean Neuropsychiatric Association.

“Follow-up measures to meet the needs of the survivors should be prepared, and experts’ help in various fields must be deployed for them,” he said.

Kim of Asan Medical Center also said that “continuous attention and care should be given to people affected by the shipwreck.”

The KNPA plans to provide one-on-one counseling for the survivors, families, friends and teachers to minimize the emotional impact of the incident, while collaborating with government agencies and other psychological institutes to support them.

The Ministry of Education also plans to run support programs at Ansan High School, through which the student victims can receive therapy and medical checks.

By Kim Young-won (wone0102@heraldcorp.com)

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