Freed hostages may suffer long-term effects

The four Swiss hostages freed after six months held in the Sahara desert may suffer from nightmares and flashbacks as a result of their ordeal.

This content was published on August 20, 2003 minutes

But not everyone who is kidnapped experiences psychological damage, says Ulrike Ehlert, a professor of clinical psychology and psychotherapy at Zurich University.

“They may function pretty well physically and mentally if they were kept in quite comfortable conditions,” Ehlert told swissinfo.

“But with people who have been held for a long time in bad conditions, most of them - about 80 per cent - show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

But, she adds, even if the hostages underwent a stressful experience it might not automatically mean they would suffer any long-term psychological effects.

“Some people never show any abnormal behaviour afterwards, so it’s not necessarily true that someone who had a bad experience will be psychologically disturbed.”

When the hostages get home, Ehlert says, it is important that they are surrounded by people whom they trust.

Forming friendships

It is also important that they tell someone about their experiences, to help them recover.

“It is important that the hostages know they have the opportunity to get counselling,” she said. “They should also know that nightmares and flashbacks are a normal reaction to their experiences.”

In some cases hostages can show an understanding towards their captors, and even form friendships with them.

Ehlert says this normally happens if the hostages are sympathetic to the reasons why they are being held and it can, in turn, help to ease their anxiety over being held captive.

“If they have an understanding of the kidnapper’s political situation then something like a friendship can form,” she said.

“In such cases, the psychological burden can also be lighter than for those who constantly feel threatened and have no idea why they were captured.”

swissinfo, Karin Kamp and Joanne Shields

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