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At St Mary`s Hospital, a few blocks away from the famous Hangang River in Seoul, 500 Korean professionals gathered for the very first Korean traumatic stress meeting on April 17, 2015.

The conference was hosted by Dr Jeong-Ho Chae, president of the Korean Society of Traumatic Stress Studies (KSTSS). On invitation from the association, the meeting was supported by ISTSS as part of its Global Meetings initiative. Current ISTSS president Miranda Olff, PhD, ISTSS president-elect Grete Dyb, Md, PhD, and Board member Yoshiharu Kim, MD, PhD, were invited as speakers.

The conference was held the day after the first anniversary of the Sewol ferry accident (April 16th, 2014). The ferry was on a routine journey from Iuncheon to the southern island of Jeju, when it capsized while making a sharp turn and sank. Among the 304 victims were 250 students on a class trip. Only 75 people survived and 9 persons are still not accounted for.

(Click photos to enlarge)

Professionals who had been reaching out to bereaved families and survivors presented the challenges of their work in the morning session of the conference, including their experiences providing acute interventions close to the site of the accident and ongoing trauma and grief work with families and in the school. As guests from Holland (Miranda), Japan (Yoshi) and Norway (Grete), we were all unfamiliar with the Korean language, so our interpreter helped us understand how our Korean colleagues had handled the crisis.

It seemed that the Korean outreach was based on up-to-date evidence in our field and thoughtful professional interventions were in place. In spite of extensive work, the anger expressed by parents and their supporters towards the government was a great challenge to deal with.  Even though anger is a well-known symptom in the aftermath of trauma and this challenge seems well-known to trauma professionals, the high level was pointed out as an obstacle to the families’ recovery. In a country with the highest suicide levels in the world, this was another sad consequence of the disaster that professionals have been facing.

In the afternoon session, the ISTSS representatives presented their talks on experiences of recent disasters in their own countries; ISTSS president Miranda Olff presented experiences from the Malaysia Airline plane crash, Yoshiharu Kim shared knowledge about trauma and grief after the East Japan Tsunami Disasters, and Grete Dyb presented on the Utøya massacre and findings from the Utøya study in Norway. The presentations pointed both at similarities across events, but also how characteristics of the disasters (e.g. technical versus man-made, involvement of children, many deceased not accounted for) may represent specific challenges that need to be taken into account when planning outreach programs.

Another aspect raised was how authorities’ handling of the crisis often impacts the recovery processes. Korean presenters highlighted the distrust in authorities as a challenge in their work with the affected families. Our own experiences during the stay made us realize how strongly these feelings were expressed. The week of the Seoul ferry disaster anniversary, memorial ceremonies were arranged both at the memorial altars in the students’ home town Ansan and in Seoul. The yellow ribbons symbolizing the event were visible all over town.

However, even more evident were the 15,000 police around Seoul’s main ceremonial thoroughfare, where 100 protesters were arrested, as we learned later through media reports. Protesters demanded that the government allow an independent inquiry into the disaster and make an immediate decision to raise the Seoul ferry. This demand also was conveyed to us by the fathers of deceased students, as we talked to them at the memorial hall in Asan, surrounded by pictures of the students and a sea of yellow flowers.
The initiative taken by the Korean Society of Traumatic Stress Studies to exchange experiences and aggregate knowledge of traumatic stress at their first meeting was highly valued, as was expressed by many of the speakers. An extended group of trauma workers, comprising more than 500 professionals in psychology, psychiatry, nursing, social work and school personnel attended the meeting. As international guests and ISTSS representatives, we gained new insight about the challenges this accident raised, both by listening to speakers at the conference and by experiencing how Korean society faced specific issues related to the event aftermath.

Exchanging knowledge of traumatic stress among professionals, and using the knowledge to advocate globally, is in line with ISTSS’ strategic goals. ISTSS will continue to expand its global network and offers its sincere welcome to our Korean colleagues.

About the Authors

Grete Dyb, MD, PhD, is a researcher at the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies and an associate professor at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Oslo. She is currently the Principle Investigator of “The Utøya Study”, a longitudinal research project on survivors and families of the massacre in Norway in July, 2011. She was trained in child and adolescent psychiatry, and worked many years as a clinician in hospitals and outpatient units. Her special interest is childhood trauma and posttraumatic stress reactions in children and youth has resulted in research on children youth and families exposed to traumatic events such as child sexual abuse, violence, accidents and disasters. She is currently president-elect of ISTSS.  

Yoshiharu Kim, MD, PhD, is president of the National Information Center of Disaster Mental Health, National Institute of Mental Health, National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry, Japan. He is also a member of the ISTSS Board of Directors and is the Editor-in-Chief of the Japanese Journal of Traumatic Stress.

Miranda Olff, PhD, is head of the Center for Psychological Trauma within the Department of Psychiatry at the Academic Medical Center, University of Amsterdam and is a professor at the Arq Psychotrauma Expert Group, Diemen, in the Netherlands. She is the current president of ISTSS and the Editor-in-Chief of ESTSS's open access journal European Journal of Psychotraumatology.