Terrorism, war, can affect Swiss psyche

News of war, and devastating acts of terrorism can be difficult to cope with Keystone

For nearly a month, people in Switzerland, as elsewhere, have coped with startling new realities: the horrifying sight of hijacked commercial planes being crashed into buildings in the United States, the massacre in canton Zug, the collapse of Swissair, and the US retaliatory strikes in Afghanistan.

This content was published on October 10, 2001 - 14:04

As Switzerland marked Mental Health Day on Wednesday, psychologists noted that the recent events have affected many people, sometimes in subtle ways.

"They feel anxious and are irritated as they do not know what will happen in the near future," said Ulrike Ehlert, head of the department of clinical psychology of the University of Zurich.

Mental health experts say people who viewed the disturbing, televised images of the infernos at the World Trade Center, where some 5,000 people died, may develop an acute stress disorder within weeks of the traumatic events.

Comfort of family

At times like this it is very important for people to be with their families to better cope with the situation, Ehlert said.

Ehlert was among psychiatrists and psychologists attending a conference on work-related mental health issues in the Swiss capital, Bern.

"People in Switzerland may have the feeling of being protected as Switzerland normally remains neutral," Ehlert said. She added that the Swiss feel more secure than people in other nations.

"But those people who have to travel and have to leave the country start to become more nervous about travelling abroad."

The current war on terrorism, following the September 11 strikes, is in some ways similar to the world climate during the Gulf War a decade ago, when people watched on television as cruise missiles were launched and struck targets in the Gulf region.

"The difference between the Gulf War and the situation now is that [this time] viewers were able to see on television that people like us became victims of terrorism and war situations," she told swissinfo.

When the United States began retaliatory strikes against Afghanistan on October 7, people reacted in various ways.

The physician and psychiatrist Tedy Hubschmid, who heads the Swiss society for psychiatry and psychotherapy, asked his 30 patients how they experienced the events.

He told swissinfo that the degree to which people were affected varied enormously. "Some of my very ill patients live in their own world and don't even notice what is happening around them," he said.

However, some of his other, less ill patients said they were experiencing the recent events very intensively. "Some of my patients say they are afraid and confuse Afghanistan with Switzerland. They are afraid that bombs could fall in their region," he added.

Hubschmid is convinced that everybody is affected in some way by the attacks -- the pictures of the World Trade Center attacks have been shown repeatedly on television. "All this news is hard to take and it affects people, even though they don't tell you that they are affected."

Children's response

Many children watched the tragedy unfold before their eyes. Ehlert believes that some children may need their parents' help to come to terms with what they have seen.

"Some of the kids, especially boys, might have found the initial phase of the attacks quite exciting", she said. However, after a while the kids may question the events and seek their parents' help.

"Parents should talk to their children about what really happened and let the children paint pictures of what they have seen on television," she advised.

However, all the recent events together have undermined the Swiss people's confidence quite significantly. The downfall of Swissair had a particular effect. In fact, Ehnert thinks that it might even have a bigger impact on people's psyche than the terrorist attacks.

"I think most people in Switzerland are more worried about the problems of Swissair. The war in Afghanistan is far away and I think it is normal that one is most concerned with the things they are closest to", she said.

by Billi Bierling

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