Profiles of Norwegian science: Supporting tsunami survivors over time

The memorial to Norwegians affected by the 2004 tsunami is a concrete structure made to look like wave rippling. The structure is cracked in quarters.

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Memorial to Norwegians affected by the 2004 tsunami, on Bygdøy, Oslo.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

On December 26, 2004, a massive, shallow earthquake rocked Indonesia’s west coast. Over the following hours, tsunami waves struck more than a dozen countries around the Indian Ocean.

Over 220,000 people were killed, including 84 Norwegians. Thousands of Norwegians were directly affected. Scientists have been following some who experienced the tsunami or who had relatives in the areas, in order to understand trauma, recovery, and support needs.

The Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies has led much of this work, collaborating with colleagues from around Norway and around the world. Methods include face-to-face interviews, mailed questionnaires, and assessments, to learn from those who experienced the events.

A principal topic is mental health. Post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety are among the monitored conditions. Trond Heir and Pål Kristensen led or supported numerous publications.

Specific symptoms and conditions were classified and checked for changes over time. They were linked to variables including gender, education level, bereavement, nearly being killed, knowing injured people, length of time to identify a deceased relative, and not having support. The correlations were complex, indicating a need to look closely at an individual’s characteristics and disaster experience to determine mental health treatment.

One important recommendation is to support survivors in returning to the disaster site if and when they choose to do so as part of coping with the experience. The same held true for the bereaved visiting the site of their family member’s death.

A pair of studies with Astri Nordløkken at the helm focused on post-disaster alcohol consumption. Contrary to many expectations, alcohol consumption and perceived alcohol consumption did not change markedly overall.

Nearly the same number of Norwegians affected drank more as drank less after the tsunami. Both groups were a minority, with most not changing the amount of alcohol they drank. Similar results emerged for self-reported perceptions of changes to alcohol consumption. Some felt they were drinking more, but others less.

Children and youth were the spotlight for investigations by Gertrud Sofie Hafstad and colleagues. Parents discussed how they watched their children for signs of distress, how they chose to intervene, and which support mechanisms they provided.

Dialogue, creating a feeling of safety, and reestablishing routines were among the most common approaches, matching much professional advice. Where parents were directly affected by the tsunami, they were less able to support their children.

As one approach to managing post-tsunami mental health, mindfulness was explored with Christina Hagen leading. Mindfulness emphasizes the present moment. It encourages greater immediate awareness of oneself, one’s feelings, and one’s surroundings.

Mindfulness did not appear to influence tsunami-related mental health effects. Attentiveness did seem to be positively affected by mindfulness. The researchers explained that disasters can influence how mindfulness benefits an individual.

Not all tsunami-affected Norwegians wished to participate in research. Ajmal Hussain led a paper looking at why many of those contacted elected not to participate in surveys. Generally, participants had endured worse disaster experiences than non-participants. The most common reasons for not participating were disinterest, no time, and feeling that they had little to offer.

The paper concludes that people more affected by a disaster seem to be more inclined to participate in research. Analyses from post-disaster trauma studies could be skewed by this sample bias.

The same scientists examined religion and mental health. Few participants were deeply religious. While worse disaster experiences tended to turn some people towards religion and some away from religion, mental health did not seem to be influenced much by religious attitudes.

Karl Halvor Teigen and Tine K. Jensen took on the theme of survivors’ view of luck. Those interviewed did not feel unlucky to have been caught by the tsunami. Instead, they felt good fortune that they made it through the disaster. This opinion did not preclude guilt or supernatural attribution.

The research continues. People who went through the tsunami disaster, or know people who did, have plenty to teach us about its life-long impacts. This science will improve the support given to disaster-affected people, especially for avoiding adverse mental health consequences.

Surviving or being bereaved by a disaster is often life changing. Science can help by learning and applying what is needed to get through the difficult times. Post-disaster life may be different and difficult, but never ever give up.

People are always willing to help.

This article originally appeared in the June 2, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.