Survivor Guilt

sophies choice

war by leif parsons

Survivor guilt is a mental condition that occurs when a person perceives themselves to have done wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not. It may be found among survivors of combat, natural disasters, epidemics, among the friends and family of those who have died by suicide, and in non-mortal situations such as among those whose colleagues are laid off. The experience and manifestation of survivor’s guilt will depend on an individual’s psychological profile.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines it as a significant symptom of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Characteristic symptoms include anxiety and depression, social withdrawal, sleep disturbance and nightmares, physical complaints and mood swings with loss of drive.

Survivor guilt was first identified during the 1960s. Several therapists recognized similar if not identical conditions among Holocaust survivors. Similar signs and symptoms have been recognized in survivors of traumatic situations including combat, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, air-crashes and wide-ranging job layoffs. A variant form has been found among rescue and emergency services personnel who blame themselves for doing too little to help those in danger, and among therapists and caregivers, who may feel a form of guilt in the face of their patients’ suffering.

Stephen Joseph, a psychologist at the University of Warwick, has studied the survivors of the capsizing of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise which killed 193 of the 459 passengers. His studies showed that 60 percent of the survivors suffered from survivor guilt. Joseph went on to say: ‘There were three types: first, there was guilt about staying alive while others died; second, there was guilt about the things they failed to do – these people often suffered post-traumatic ‘intrusions’ as they relived the event again and again; third, there were feelings of guilt about what they did do, such as scrambling over others to escape. These people usually wanted to avoid thinking about the catastrophe. They didn’t want to be reminded of what really happened.’

Waylon Jennings was a guitarist for Buddy Holly’s band and initially had a seat on the ill-fated aircraft on ‘The Day the Music Died’ (February 3, 1959. But Jennings gave up his seat to the sick JP ‘Big Bopper’ Richardson, only to learn later of the plane’s demise. When Holly learned that Jennings was not going to fly, he said, ‘Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.’ Jennings responded, ‘Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.’ This exchange of words, though made in jest at the time, haunted Jennings for the rest of his life.

 

 

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