Certain experiences are so devastating that their impact leaves you scarred for life, haunting you forever. One of the most traumatic tragedies was the Army Public School, Peshawar terrorist attack; the horrors of which cannot be denied or forgotten.
The survivors are still suffering from the psychological after-effects such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complicated grief. Children and adults alike, still experience flashbacks, nightmares, inability to concentrate, frequent crying and outbursts, difficulties with sleep, disturbed appetite, relationship problems, suicidal thoughts and attempts, drug abuse, and other high-risk behaviours. Despite of all the efforts being made to help them recover, not much progress is seen, especially among males. The major factor behind the failure being, the victims of trauma are unable to open up about their torment, for, being the male members of our society, they have been taught to behave in a certain manner. Their roles have already been defined.
A society that has raised its boys and young men to be brave and heroic and socialises to believe that any expression of sadness, hurt and fear would be akin to cowardice makes it more difficult to cope with a devastating event such as a terrorist attack or a bomb blast even more complex than the phenomenon already is.
We come across messages surrounding the concept of masculinity such as:
“Brave boys don’t cry.”
“There is no courage in showing that you are hurt and scared.”
“The brave sons of a brave nation cannot be deterred.”
“Boys are tough; they don’t need the kind of gentleness and emotional support girls need.”
“Strong men handle problems on their own.”
Such statements greatly affect how boys and young men understand and deal with traumatic life experiences. All of this also links closely with how we as adults, care-givers, parents and teachers contribute towards strengthening the very social norms that might do more harm than good to boys as they try to make sense of their emotions and thoughts as an aftermath of a trauma.
The Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity highlights the link between the definitions of masculinity that require boys to conform to the ideals of toughness and stoicism with men being emotionally stunted and aggressive. As a result they harm not only themselves but also their families and communities.
Psychologist Roland F Levant uses the term ‘Normative Male Alexithymia’ to describe the challenges experienced by some men in their inability to be genuinely aware of identify and verbalise emotions such as those of depression. He associates this phenomenon with how boys learn from their parents and peers to suppress their vulnerabilities including feelings of sadness.
Several global studies and researches (quoted by the American Psychological Association and the British Psychological Society) reveal the role of socialisation, men’s upbringing and their inability to seek professional help. These studies indicate that even though men of all ages and ethnicities may experience similar or greater problems than women, in dealing with issues such as depression, stressful life experiences and substance abuse, they are less likely to seek support, which would in turn have a negative impact on their mental and physical well-being including their relationships.
The conscious and unconscious pressure to conform to masculine norms not only affects children’s ability to cope but also negatively impacts the kinds of interventions we may plan for them, especially boys and young men. So while many of us now know that the psychological best practices to address such incidents must include a well-thought-out, holistic, consolidated and long-term plan that includes educating all children and their families about normal physical and psychological reactions to the event, teaching healthy ways of coping, equipping teachers and parents with information and skills, and providing children with opportunities to seek professional support, there may be a denial of the need and importance of these interventions resulting in half-baked efforts to implement them.
As we mark the first anniversary of the Army Public School (APS) attack and send out a strong message of our resolve to fight terrorism, to the terrorists and extremist groups, let us make sure we are not compromising on the supportive spaces these boys would need in order to recover and heal in the true sense. We, the adults, need to ask ourselves if our media messages, motivational talks and discourse that overplay the concepts of bravery and heroism among boys are doing more harm than good by inhibiting these children from developing healthy and effective coping skills.