The current UK threat of terrorism is ‘severe’, meaning that the government and the experts at M15 believe that a terrorist attack is highly likely. This ‘severe’ level has been in place and remained unchanged since 29 August 2014.

Terrorist attacks lead to widespread national anxiety, and their primary purpose (aside from drawing the attention of the world’s media to their cause) is to instil fear, and disrupt the social functions and infrastructure of the societies that they wish to attack and destabilise. This anxiety, distress and other mental health consequences do not solely effect those individuals directly affected by the act of terrorism (i.e. those who are either caught in the attack themselves or those loved ones are caught or die in the attack) although the effects on these individuals is considerably more pronounced. But research has found that the general psyche within a nation is affected, even in those individuals who have no direct link with the attack: many of those individuals, particularly those who are already in a psychologically vulnerable position, are still likely to experience feelings of stress and anxiety that can have a huge effect on wider society.

Wide scale studies that have been conducted in representative samples of the general population following terrorist events have found that this is certainly the case: symptoms of stress were evident in individuals both geographically close and far distant from the original incident following the September 2001 terrorist attacks. Following that same attack, a widespread study into the psyche of the entire nation found that for a period of four weeks the number of depressive symptoms in the nation increased significantly before slowly slumping to a slightly heightened sense of anxiety. For the majority of individuals, then, the feelings of stress, depression and anxiety caused both by acts of terrorism and threats of terrorism are relatively temporary and do not require any treatment or support. However for a significant minority, symptoms will continue for much longer: Over 6 months after the 11 September terrorist attacks, 5.3% of individuals residing in New York City continued to meet criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, and required the support of medical professionals to process this disorder, despite a large number of individuals within that figure having no significant direct link to the attacks. Simply the threat of terrorism and the knowledge that your government feels an attack is likely is enough, for some people, could lead to lead to depression, anxiety, and extreme levels of fear.

Living With the Threat of Terrorism

Living with the constant threat of terrorism can also have numerous effects on the health, wellbeing, and interactions within communities. Many people live in entirely irrational fear of the Muslim community, whilst some members within Muslim communities (tired of being scapegoated and feared by their neighbours) choose to withdraw and become increasingly introverted within their own community groups, rather than being active within the larger community. Both of these actions serve to increase those feelings of fear and suspicion, rather than abate them. This in turn can lead to feelings of paranoia, increased anxiety, and other issues that could well require the support of a mental health professional.

The wider health implications of terrorism, then, are significant, and something that it is important for all of society to consider. By doing so, we can be better prepared for the unfortunate case of another terrorist attack.

Further Reading

“What is the current national threat level?”, Security Service, M15, https://www.mi5.gov.uk/home/about-us/faqs-about-mi5/what-is-the-current-national-threat-level.html

“Psychiatric and Societal Impacts of Terrorism”, Psychiatric Times, http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/articles/psychiatric-and-societal-impacts-terrorism

“The impact of terrorism and disasters on children”, American Psychological Association, http://www.apa.org/about/gr/issues/cyf/disaster.aspx

“Corporate Health”, QZ, http://www.quotezone.co.uk/corporate-health-insurance.htm

“Private health insurance takes a dive”, The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/society/2010/jul/19/health-insurance-slumps

“Mental health following terrorist attacks”, The British Journal of Psychiatry, http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/190/2/94

“The Impact of Terrorism on Brain, and Behavior: What We Know and What We Need to Know”, Neuropsychopharmacology Journal, http://www.nature.com/npp/journal/v30/n10/full/1300817a.html

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