S Korea ferry survivors are 'also victims'

2014-04-23 10:44
Relatives of missing passengers aboard the sunken South Korean ferry 'Sewol', sit on the road during a march towarding the presidential house to protest the government's rescue operation in Jindo. (Truth Leem, AFP)

Relatives of missing passengers aboard the sunken South Korean ferry 'Sewol', sit on the road during a march towarding the presidential house to protest the government's rescue operation in Jindo. (Truth Leem, AFP)

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Seoul - The desperate, tragically fruitless search for survivors of South Korea's ferry disaster has so far overshadowed the damaging psychological legacy inflicted on those who managed to escape the sinking vessel.

A total of 174 passengers and crew survived the capsize of the 6 825 ton Sewol a week ago, that left around 300 people dead or missing.

Among them were 75 students from Danwon High School, who must now try and rebuild lives shattered by the trauma not just of the incident itself but also the loss of around 250 of their classmates.

Doctors treating the teenage survivors say 20% have exhibited signs of post traumatic stress disorder and could require long-term counselling and psychiatric help.

Jang Dong-Woon, a father speaking on behalf of other parents of the students who survived, told reporters that their children should also be recognised as victims, and not just labelled "lucky" survivors.

"They say they feel like sinners," Jang said, describing an overbearing sense of survivors' guilt among many of the students.

"We should take responsibility for and take care of all of them - those who are still missing, those who are dead and those who have survived," he said.

Some of the children are so traumatised that they even have difficulty being close to windows, fearing "that the water will suddenly rush in", he added.

A total of 352 Danwon High students were on the ferry and the huge loss of life has devastated the city of Ansan, south of Seoul, where the school is located.

Psychological toll

Grief and guilt have already claimed the life of one survivor, the school's deputy principal who hanged himself two days after being rescued from the ship.

He left a suicide note saying it was "so hard to stay alive" when so many students in his care had perished.

"I may become a teacher again in the afterlife for the students whose bodies have yet to be found," the note said.

The disaster - one of the deadliest in South Korea's history - plunged the country into the state of collective mourning, with political campaigns suspended, TV shows and concerts cancelled and tearful vigils held nationwide.

The psychological toll has been especially heavy on the hundreds of relatives of the missing camped out for a week in a gymnasium on the southern island of Jindo.

The gym has become a hothouse of anger and grief with the relatives - mostly parents - riding an emotional roller-coaster as the scramble for survivors turned into a grim search for bodies.

Anger and grief

For those whose loved ones are still unaccounted for, each new day brings another agonising wait for notification that a body has been found that in some way matches their child, brother or sister.

Then comes the harrowing moment when the relatives are taken into tents erected on Jindo harbour to visually identify the body.

"They are in a state of emotional chaos - full of shock, disbelief, anger and grief," said Sohn Jee-Hoon, one of dozens of counsellors working with the families in Jindo - some of them volunteers, some sent by the government.

Many relatives are in need of therapy but are simply too traumatised to consider seeking help, Sohn said, calling the situation "very worrying".

Therapy and counselling in general is frowned upon by many in South Korea who see the need for psychological help as a sign of mental weakness.

At the same time, the country has the highest suicide rate among members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) - and one of the highest in the world - at 33.5 per 100 000 people.

Ha Jung-Mi, a psychiatrist working with the relatives, said there was a real danger that some of them might feel driven to take their own lives.

"Those who are emotionally vulnerable and have no real support system around them are at risk of committing suicide," he said.

Ha also warned of the long-term mental impact of the disaster on the many people involved in the rescue operation, particularly the hundreds of military and civilian divers tasked with recovering the bloated bodies of students and other victims from the sunken ferry.

One amateur diver Lee Jun-Ho has spent hours feeling his way through the ferry's corridors and cabins in near pitch darkness.

"It was horrible to suddenly come almost face to face with a body in the water," said Lee, who has two young children of his own.

"It makes it tough to sleep at night," he said.

Read more on:    south korea  |  ferry disaster
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