To some degree, as was the case for Cichan, they could feel survivor guilt, which may be associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, according to Russell Jones, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech. But the relationship is complicated. Individuals who have gone through a traumatic event might develop PTSD, depression, or survivor guilt—“or some combination of the three,” Jones said.
The likelihood of dying in an airliner crash is slim. But when crashes do occur, organizations are equipped to respond. The National Transportation Safety Board Transportation Disaster Assistance Division, which assists victims and families in aviation accidents in the United States, helps address four areas of concern, according to Elias Kontanis, the acting chief of the TDA division: initial notification of involvement, victim accounting, access to information and resources, and personal belongings. The division also attempts to respond a flurry of questions that are common in the wake of accidents. “Survivors will have different questions and concerns sometimes,” Kontanis said. “A survivor may want to know how they got out of a vehicle or how they are rescued. That may be a strong focus for them.”
Valerie Cole, the manager of disaster-health services and disaster mental-health at the American Red Cross, which works with the NTSB, added that “often times because of the trauma, the immediate response is confusion or the immediate response is not remembering exactly what happened.” It differs on a case-by-case basis: For some survivors, the memory of the incident may be impaired, while others may remember it in detail. Responders are sensitive to this. In their first interactions with survivors, they’ll work to attend to their basic needs, ensuring that they have food, shelter, and are in touch with family, Cole said. Meanwhile, the family members of victims may be seeking more information about their loved ones—where they are, what their status is—and the incident—how it happened and what comes next. Information is also shared with survivors if they’re curious. And while responders may listen to survivors’ stories of the incident, they do not “delve or probe” in an attempt to avoid solidifying memories which might harm their progress in the long run, Cole said.
Still, in the long term, survivors may become frustrated or severely depressed. And the “survivors” of a disaster aren’t only the people who experienced it—the loved ones of those directly involved can also be affected. An individual doesn’t have to witness an event first hand to be susceptible to PTSD, but they do have to know the person involved in the traumatic event, Jones said: “People that are injured, people that know individuals that were actually killed, people that were actually there at the time of the event are more likely to develop PTSD.” A 2011 study on the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting found, for example, that students who could hear shots as a result of their close proximity to it and were aware of the incident, knew someone who was either killed or injured, or couldn’t get in touch with someone during the shooting had high levels of post-traumatic stress, Jones said.