Hundreds of grieving family members of passengers missing on the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines flight are in dire need of psychological counselling, experts have warned, after their uncontrollable outburst of sobs and curses gripped the hearts of millions.
While public sympathy remains high for the distraught friends and relatives of the missing passengers, experts have raised the question of whether they are receiving enough help.
“Some people haven’t been out of their room for days,” said Paul Yin, a psychologist who has been providing free counselling. He said his team of three volunteers has only been able to reach about 30 of the hundred families of passengers aboard the ill-fated Flight 370 that disappeared from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8.
As of Thursday, 571 next-of-kin of the 153 Chinese passengers on board the flight were staying at six hotels in Beijing, according to the airline’s press office, waiting for confirmation on the location of where the plane actually crashed in the southern Pacific Ocean. Yin said the long-lasting uncertainty has exacerbated what is already a traumatising experience.
Lawrence Lam Tak-ming, head of the Department of Health and Physical Education of the Hong Kong Institute of Education said the consequences of the experience could result in long-lasting post-traumatic stress disorder. “There has to be immediate action, providing psychological first aid,” he said. “Some of them could require longer term treatment.”
Paraphrasing a line from the 1986 movie Clockwise, said: “It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand,” psychologist Yin said with a bitter laugh. “Even if the rational mind is accepting the final outcome, the emotional mind is still very resistant.”
Christian Chan, an assistant professor at Hong Kong University’s department of psychology researching the mental effects of disasters said the outbursts of rage had been caused by the incomplete information provided by the Malaysian government – and the unrelenting media focus on the plane’s still unknown fate. “It is the additional stress that is not helpful in that situation,” he said. “The relatives and loved ones have gone through an emotional roller coaster.”
The relatives have had a trying week. Late Monday, Malaysian officials announced that the flight had ended in the southern Indian Ocean, although no wreckage has been found. Hundreds of relatives traveled to the Malaysian embassy the next day, where they yelled and threw bottles at the compound, and called officials murderers and liars. Beijing authorities allowed the rare street protest.
Yin said that the families he and his team have been able to see did not participate in the protest. “Once they receive help, they are able to channel their emotions and to support each other in a far more productive way than the families who haven’t been taken care of,” he said.
Yin said that those who have not received assistance only had others in the same situation to rely on, he said. “It’s group psychology: some are calming down, others will develop stronger emotions and ultimately the stronger emotions will take over the entire group.”
A team of 10 doctors from the Huilongguan Hospital – a psychiatric facility on the northern outskirts of Beijing – have been sent by the government to provide psychological assistance to the passengers’ next of kin.
The team’s co-ordinator Wang Jian said that his team was working hard to meet the need for psychological counselling among family members. “The families’ emotions are still going through a lot of fluctuation. We have received calls in the middle of the night for help.”
“I have seen many disasters and anger followed every one,” he said. “One thing they need is someone to stay with them and let them vent their anger. I see these Malaysian technical sessions as way for them to vent their anger, too.”
He told the Sina news website he had met 342 times with relatives – four times his usual workload.
In the interview, Wang said he recalled his disappointment after the inconclusive press conference by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on March 24 as the low-point in his time assisting the families.
It was widely anticipated that conclusive evidence would have been announced the hastily convened press conference. As long as such evidence could not be found, family members would “endure the ever-lasting torture” of uncertainty, he said.
Wang, who has gained previous counselling experience during Sars epidemic a decade ago and in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, said the tragedy “will leave longer lasting and more acute wounds,” he said. “This is the toughest disaster I’ve been through.”
Meanwhile, another doctor with the private Ciming Oasis Hospital in Beijing specialising in music therapy, said his hospital had offered to provide psychological assistance to the family relatives – but the offer went ignored. He said he did not know whether it was the government or the families themselves who declined assistance.