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Freed school boys: Winning them from trauma


Lagos State Deputy Governor, Dr. (Mrs) Oluranti Adebule (left); Ondo State Governor, Mr. Rotimi Akeredolu (right); his Deputy, Mr. Alfred Agboola (2nd right) with the released Igbonla students at the Round House, the Secretariat, Alausa, Ikeja.

• Should Be Assigned A Psychotherapist, Clinician For At Least Three Years, Say Experts
• May Never Recover From The Shock

Having spent nine weeks with persons who forcefully abducted them, the experience the just released six students of Model College, Igbonla, Epe, went through, no doubt, could not have been a normal one. During the sixty-five days they were in the custody of their kidnappers, the daily activities they were subjected to are not what they were familiar with.

They were kidnapped in their school in Epe and later transported by water to Ondo State through Delta, three states and hundreds of kilometers away from their natural habitat.

During the days they were held, the students and the kidnappers would have had discussions. And the students, who are teenagers, would have asked naïve questions that would provide some room for sympathetic talks, probably resulting in giving out vital information from both ends. Also, while in captivity, the students must have observed the operations of the kidnappers, which they would have consciously and unconsciously taken to memory.

With the interactions and observation, the students’ perspectives to issues about themselves, engaging fellow students, residents, government and society would have been tampered with, positively or negatively. No wonder the Lagos State Government said the students would go through medical treatment and trauma therapy. But experts said the students need to be assigned a psychotherapist and clinician each for three years, so that their experiences would not affect them negatively.

Speaking on the psychological implications of the students staying with the kidnappers for nine weeks, a clinical psychologist, Dr David Igbokwe said three key possibilities the students might be facing now are Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Acute Stress Disorder and Adjustment Disorders.

According to him, the most likely major issue the students will be battling with now is PTSD; with symptoms like distressing memories, distressing dreams, flashbacks, psychological distress, avoidance of stimuli related to the events, negative cognition and mood.

“Most times, the consequences tend to be life-long. Hence, the students need long-term treatment that could last more than a year. These students are going to live with the effects of this trauma for the rest of their lives.”

Igbokwe, a psychology teacher at Covenant University, Ota, Ogun State, noted that there is no how the 65 days will not be seared in their memories as days of uncertainties, fears, and worries, stating that if they are not adequately treated, they might end up being a menace to themselves and to society. “In 1976, in Chowchilla California, three gun wielding young boys kidnapped 26 children, 19 girls and 7 boys, along with the 55 years old driver of the children’s school bus and drove them around for some hours, later took them to an abandoned quarry and put them inside a buried moving van.

“These children were aged between 5 to 14 years. With the help of their school bus driver who was buried along with them, they were finally able to escape unhurt after 16 horrendous hours. They were taken to a rehabilitation centre for immediate attention. It has been reported that even more than 25 years after the incident, many of the survivors still suffer from depression, substance abuse, panic attacks, fears, nightmares, and other symptoms of trauma.

“These young people in the US were kidnapped for about 24 hours plus. However, the released Lagos students were held for 65 days. Juxtapose both situations, then you can begin to imagine and speculate how long it might take these students to fully recover.” The university lecturer maintained that the psychological import of the kidnap of the students are enormous and cannot fully be captured via approximations alone, but through a precise and comprehensive psychological assessment.

“In fact, a team of experts comprising of medical doctors, psychiatrists, psychologist, counsellors should conduct a comprehensive examination of these students and engage in their treatment,” Igbokwe said. Another clinical psychologist, Toyin Alatise-Abimbola, also agreed that the students are likely to experience stress reactions with their thinking, emotions and interactions like intrusive thoughts, denial, impaired memory, decreased concentration, being overcautious and aware, confusion or fear of the event happening again, shock, numbness, anxiety, guilt, depression, anger and a sense of helplessness, withdrawal and avoidance of family, friends, activities and being on edge.

Abimbola stated that freedom almost always brings a sense of elation and relief, but adjusting back to the real world after being held hostage can be just as difficult as abruptly leaving it. She further said that on release, the students would be faced with transiting from conditions of isolation and helplessness to sensory overload and freedom.

She also believed that the students might have developed an unconscious bond with their captors and experience grief if their captors were harmed. “They may also feel guilty for developing a bond. This is typically referred to as the Stockholm syndrome. Hostage survivors may also have feelings of guilt for surviving while others did not.” This, she said, is why the students must be made to recognise that these are usual human reactions to being held captive.

Abimbola suggested that in helping the students overcome their experience, they should receive medical attention, be in a safe and secure environment, connect with loved ones, have an opportunity to talk or write their experiences if and when they choose, receive resources and information about how to seek counseling, particularly if their distress from the incident is interfering with their daily lives, protect their privacy by avoiding media overexposure, including watching and listening to news and participating in media interviews.

She also advised that family and friends could support survivors by listening, being patient and focusing on their freedom, instead of engaging in negative talk about the captors.“It is important to realise that families and friends of hostages are confronted with numerous issues in coping with fears and uncertainties, as well and may also need support in dealing with their own emotional reactions.”

Igbokwe said the primary psychotherapy they should go through is Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or any of its variants because they have been through traumatic stress and they have built memories of these negative events.

“Once they are assessed for trauma, therapy should be initiated in the short-term and sustained long term. In fact, as a long-term assistance initiative, a psychotherapist or clinician should be assigned permanently to each of the released boys for at least the next two to three years.

“These experts will monitor them, treat disorders, assist in reintegrating them into the society and assist in empowering them, in building their self-esteem and confidence.”He said the need for a long-term treatment approach is to avoid the students illogically developing positive feelings towards their captors and negative feelings towards authorities, probably for making their captors kidnap them.

“These young Nigerian students have stayed with their captors for a long time. There is the possibility that they have started developing a certain kind of affinity towards their captor’s belief systems and goals, which is not good. “Sincerely, two months ‘unaccounted for’ is now part of their psyche. How do you work around that? What of the issue of resentment directed at self and others? What of the issue of learned helplessness? What of the issue of isolation? These are issues that would be sorted out in therapy and they are resolved gradually. The therapists should first start with psychoeducation, emotional regulations, changing core beliefs, exploring the trauma narrative, integration and so forth.”

The students were kidnapped from a school, should they return to the school, if they return, what are the implications? Igbokwe said they could return to their school, if they feel comfortable to do so. “However, the entire school, especially their classmates ought to have undergone Psychological First Aid (PFA), which is a first-line psychological intervention after crisis. If PFA is yet to be done, it should be done immediately. Also, psychologists should be on hand to assist in the integration process and allay the fears of the other students.

“Of course, as mentioned earlier, PTSD does not only present in people who have been directly exposed to or have experienced a traumatic event alone, it also manifests in people who have not been directly exposed, but have witnessed it.

“Once PFA is initiated, issues like safety and comfort will be discussed and addressed. Students already manifesting psychological issues will be stabilized, students who have other concerns will be attended to and their issues possibly resolved and most importantly, social support will be established. These will go a long way towards allaying their fears and assisting them to integrate fully into the school system again,” Igbokwe said.Abimbola also said they may resume at their former school, although they need time to recover from the physical, mental and emotional difficulties they faced. 

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