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So little has changed since the Manchester Arena bombing. I worry terrorists have the upper hand

The impact of surviving and witnessing a terrorist attack to an individual and the community is huge, writes Dr Cath Hill, who lived through the Manchester Arena attack

Tributes to the victims of the Manchester Arena attack. Ardfern, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Terrorism, a serious act of violence which endangers life and significantly affects the health and wellbeing of victims, is designed to influence government, intimidate the public and advance a political, religious, or ideological cause. Thankfully, the likelihood of being a victim of terrorism in the UK is small and although comparisons to other fatal incidents are simplistic and slightly crude, the reality is that statistically you are more likely to die taking a bath than be killed by a terrorist. Yet, the impact of surviving and witnessing a terrorist attack to an individual and the community is huge, it can have lifelong psychological consequences and undermines trust in communities and social cohesion.  

In response, western governments (and consequently the public), feel frightened into committing significant resources and effort to counter the threat and minimise the risk of future attacks. One only has to endure airport security with a plastic bag of small toiletries and experience the full body scan in socks, to comprehend how much terrorism undermines society’s sense of safety. Of course, it is important to prevent attacks happening in the first place, but to counter the long-term consequences, the lasting impact to individuals and communities which the terrorist organisations hope to achieve, it is essential that support for survivors is also resourced robustly and comprehensively.  

In the UK in 2017, five terrorists with differing affiliations, employed various tactics to incite fear and death among the general public. For anyone caught up in those attacks in London and Manchester, the experience was traumatic. For the wider public watching it unfold on the media it was frightening and for society it was divisive. The physical support offered by the NHS to those injured was excellent. The then prime minister offered verbal support in the form of her thoughts and prayers, and communities rallied (sometimes in song) to counter narratives of hate.

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The official threat level reached critical, meaning counter terror responses ramped up and thankfully other terror attacks were prevented. While the deep sadness of losing precious souls was still raw for everyone, we were encouraged to not let the terrorist win, to resume daily life and to show them that our democracy and values will not be threatened. You would be forgiven for thinking that was the case, but sadly for those who survived the attack there was a lasting legacy, where to some extent, you could argue that the terrorists did win. 

I’ll focus in on the Manchester Arena attack. More than ten thousand young people came from all over the country to see Ariana Grande perform her only UK concert. Parents eagerly waited in the foyer to collect their kids and ensure they got home safely. We now know that the terrorist, undetected by security services, was able to detonate a home-made suicide bomb which killed 22 people. In that moment of explosion, the lives of many young people and their families changed forever. The Manchester Arena bombing was an attack that targeted young people, unlike all other attacks that year, people under the age of 18 were disproportionately affected. Bewildered by what they had just endured (for the youngest they were perhaps not even aware of the concept of terrorism), they were thrust into a new world where a joyous pop concert, was a place where people were murdered.  

The fact that children were the victims and survivors of this attack made it even more deplorable, with people thinking how easily that could have been their child. As those young people returned to their homes and schools and tried to get on with their lives, the legacy of that night was just unfolding. Thousands of young people traumatised by what they experienced subsequently sought help. Adolescent mental health provision, already impacted by austerity, struggled to cope with the influx of new referrals which exceeded the routine resources available. Wonderful charities such as the Peace Foundation in Warrington offered excellent support, but with only a small team of support staff due to inadequate funding, there was only so much they could do. Teachers did their best to help their pupils, but the psychological support some required went beyond their professional training as educators. As the Bee the Difference research highlighted, many young people were left feeling alone, anxious and unable to cope as they were on long waiting lists for mental health support. 

As we approach the seventh anniversary of that attack, I reflect with sadness how young people suffered in the aftermath and how and for some, they are still suffering and struggle to integrate back into “normal” life. Whilst I think some lessons from the attacks in 2017 have been learned and incredible people continue to campaign to make venues safer, if it happened tomorrow, I don’t see plans and resources allocated strategically to be prepared in advance. We would be lost without some of the charities who step up on these occasions, but let’s remember these are attacks against the state and the state have a responsibility to be prepared and resource psychological and financial support in the aftermath. As a general election feels imminent, I urge all parties to listen to survivors and to consider how they intend to provide support in the future, otherwise I fear that the terrorists have the upper hand when it comes to the long-term impact.  

Dr Cath Hill is a survivor of the Manchester Arena attack, lecturer in social work at Lancaster University and member of the National Emergencies Trust’s Survivors Advisory Forum. Dr Hill was lead researcher on the Bee the Difference report, a collaboration with nine young Manchester Arena attack survivors.  

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