How the Threat of War Affects Our Mental Health

Terrorism, whether small isolated events or calculated strikes with sophisticated bombs, is heavily weighing on the collective psyche. Justin Ide/REUTERS

Distressing world events, whether near or far, can take a toll on mental health. Violent clashes at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday and the threat of nuclear missile launches by North Korea leader Kim Jong Un are just two of the latest developments that—in addition to their direct harm—addle our daily lives.

On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Charlottesville rally, which left one woman dead and 19 people injured, meets the "definition of domestic terrorism." Terrorism, whether small isolated events or calculated strikes with sophisticated bombs, is heavily weighing on the collective psyche.

Newsweek spoke with Dr. Charles Marmar, a member of the American Psychiatric Association's committee on psychiatric dimensions of disasters and an adult psychiatrist at NYU Langone in New York City, about how the very real threat of terrorism is impacting mental health.

Does distressing news have a long-term effect on people's health?
Generally not. The world has always been that way and always will be. In terms of what happened over the weekend, it's a long-term vulnerability going back to the Civil War. The Civil War was fought over this issue. It's very deep in the American psyche that we have a strained history of race relations. In general, low-level incidences won't escalate. Violent incidences create racial sensitivities and agitate racial antipathies, but not at the level of facing the threat of terrorism or nuclear war.

What is the long-term psychological effect of what took place in Charlottesville over the weekend?
Very few people are affected unless they were victims themselves, injured, or their family members were killed or injured, or were actually present and witnessed the event. The vast majority will actually go on about their business in the same way that Friday everyone was agitated about North Korea. And tomorrow will be a hurricane, and it just goes on.

What is the psychological effect of nuclear war threats?
I think a threat of an actual attack against our homeland by North Korea is very profound and something that we have faced since the Cold War. People are on high alert about that, not just here, but internationally. Unless the capacity to strike America is restrained, we have a major problem—not just a major problem in security but a major problem with anxiety.

Are there any examples of this from the past?
We saw this following 9/11. The level of stress on the general population depends on the perception of how real the threat is and what happens over the next few months. Whether, for example, Kim Jong Un will stand down to diplomacy or if the matter will escalate and require military intervention will affect stress levels.

What do people experience as a result of the threat of terrorism?
It's not post-traumatic stress disorder, per se, unless there is an actual nuclear event that affects us (in which case we're dealing with a post-Hiroshima or Nagasaki scenario, which is pretty unimaginable but possible). Hypervigilance to the news, general anxiety and stress, sometimes some insomnia are the general stress symptoms.

How does the threat of terror affect children?
What we have found in all of our research—on earthquakes, terrorism, war and every other kind of disaster—is that the psychological response of children, if they're not direct victims, is determined by their parents and families. If their primary caretakers manage their anxieties well, shield their children from overexposure to information and don't convey direct anxiety to children, then the children do well. If the parents are overly anxious when they're with the children, that's unsettling for the kids, and they become symptomatic. Or if the children are overexposed to the threat through the media or discussions over the dinner hour or whatever, they can develop some stress symptoms.

How the Threat of War Affects Our Mental Health | Tech & Science