The painstaking, yet painfully slow progress of recovering those missing after the sinking of the Sewol ferry is traumatizing for family members who have been sheltered at a gymnasium for more than two weeks. No one but themselves could possibly measure how excruciating their suffering is.
There is no doubt that the authorities’ first and foremost job is to recover the missing as quickly as possible. Getting them back to their loved ones is the least this government can do for those in torment.
While the underwater search and retrieval work is a task of utmost importance at sea, there is a pressing job on land -― helping those who are enduring severe trauma after the deadly accident. Survivors and the family members of the dead and missing need urgent professional care.
Some of them have already shown typical symptoms of severe emotional stress, including posttraumatic stress disorder and survivor syndrome. The most common symptoms are anxiety, guilt, nightmares, sleep disorders and depression.
Among those in need of care, priority should go to the students who were rescued from the sinking ferry in the last minutes. Anyone who has not experienced such a moment of extreme danger would not be able to imagine the psychological shock and emotional stress they had gone through.
It should be noted that they are all second-year high schoolers, already emotionally sensitive and fragile teenagers. In the first few days after the accident, doctors who treated the teenage survivors said at least 20 percent were displaying signs of PTSD and need long-term psychiatric help.
Of the 174 survivors, 74 were students from Danwon High School in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province. All of them had been hospitalized for two weeks, 70 of them having been relocated to receive special psychological healing programs. Four remain hospitalized.
On Wednesday, 70 surviving students visited a memorial altar to pay tribute to their lost friends and classmates, on their way from the hospital to the group therapy program. Tearful and in agony, they stayed there for about 20 minutes, some of them even unable to stand on their own and being aided by their parents. It will take a long time for them to recover.
Besides the students, many more are in need of professional help, including the bereaved families of the dead and the missing. Rescue workers, especially the divers who have been pulling out bodies from the sunken ship in the face of strong currents and murky water, also need care from psychologists.
All these people go through tremendous emotional stress, which, if not taken care of properly, can result in the development of disorders that may lead to further tragedy.
We have already witnessed one such case in the suicide of the vice principal of Danwon High School. Guilt, one symptom of survivor syndrome, was the prime motive for the suicide, as evidenced by a note he left before hanging himself from a tree on Jindo Island, near the site of the Sewol sinking.
Experts warn that there is a real danger of more people suffering from severe trauma being driven to commit extreme acts such as taking their own lives. Some even mention the possibility of a chain reaction.
In conjunction with the school, provincial education authorities, hospitals and health officials, the government must work out a comprehensive program to provide psychiatric treatment and care to those whose lives have been shattered by the Sewol tragedy.
The government was incapable of preventing the calamity and reducing the death toll, but there is something it can do to reduce the psychological toll at the least.