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Psychiatrists Key Part of Crisis Teams Following Mass Killings in Norway
Psychiatric News
Volume 46 Number 17 page 2-29

Norwegian psychiatrists join a nationwide effort to help their country recover after July's bombing and shootings.

Abstract Teaser

The bombing of a government building in Oslo followed by the shootings at a youth camp on the island of Utøya on July 22 left 77 Norwegians dead, many more wounded, and an entire nation in shock following the worst disaster there since World War II.

Norway's psychiatrists and mental health professionals responded immediately to the event, whose effects are expected to be felt for years.

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Tone Skjerven, M.D., president of the Norwegian Psychiatric Association, says that association and other medical groups and health authorities will follow up with the survivors, families, and their helpers for many years after the tragic shootings and bombing in Norway in June. 

The following is an e-mail interview, slightly edited for clarity and length, with Tone Skjerven, M.D., president of the Norwegian Psychiatric Association, discussing the aftermath of the killings. She is also head of the Department of Trauma Treatment at Modum Bad Psychiatric Hospital in Vikersund.

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There has been an amazing openness, empathy, and caring among the young people who were exposed to the horrible massacre at Utøya. The motivation to go on and fight for democracy and openness in society has been consistent and overwhelming.

The sense of unreality reported by some people shortly afterward is, from a trauma perspective, part of a normal protective response soon after traumatic events. We do not yet have any detailed information to tell if this is a typical response among young people.

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Yes, there were psychiatrists and psychologists on the emergency teams and in the emergency departments of the larger hospitals, and many also signed up voluntarily. They began organizing psychological first aid and called for more assistance immediately after word of the massacre was broadcast.

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Once we knew the extent of the damage, we distributed an electronic letter to all our members, calling for their availability to serve the victims when they arrived to homes. We asked them to cooperate with the first aid and crisis teams that exist in every municipality and to offer guidance to these teams.

We are working intensively in close cooperation with the Norwegian Medical Association and with an expert group appointed by the Norwegian health authorities concerning the follow-up of the victims and their relatives and other people involved in the tragedy.

This work will continue for a long time, both by the health authorities and by local crisis teams and health services.

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Two weeks after the massacre, there were reports of increased demand for psychiatric help both for hospitalization and outpatient treatment.

Mental health professionals are on the watch in particular for retraumatization in some vulnerable groups like immigrants from war zones, older people who have experienced World War II, and others.

Immediately after the events, a hotel at Sundvollen, situated close to Utøya, established a reception center for the victims and their families. Volunteer and professional helpers were offered debriefing and follow-up at Sundvollen from health workers and members of the clergy.

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The Norwegian Penal Code states that every man or woman who commits any crime in a state of psychosis, "unconsciousness" (the latter meaning extremely disturbed consciousness), or severe mental retardation will be regarded as unaccountable. In such a case, the person may be sentenced to compulsory mental health care.

Those who are found to have been either psychotic or "unconscious" during the time of their actions cannot be sentenced to prison, regardless of how severe the crime was.

The court will always base its judgment on an expert report given by two independent forensic psychiatrists appointed by the court before the trial. They do a thorough psychiatric examination of the defendant, including neuropsychological tests if necessary.

The forensic psychiatrists also personally follow such trials from beginning to end, listening to testimony and observing the defendant in order to present their findings and judgment to the court both verbally and in writing.

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We sincerely appreciate the sympathy from our friends all over the world. As a traumatic event, the massacre at Utøya is of a very special character, and we do not know yet what consequences it may have for the victims and their families, and for our whole society.

The Web site of the Norwegian Psychiatric Association is <www.legeforeningen.no/id/11961>.2_2.inline-graphic-1.gif

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Tone Skjerven, M.D., president of the Norwegian Psychiatric Association, says that association and other medical groups and health authorities will follow up with the survivors, families, and their helpers for many years after the tragic shootings and bombing in Norway in June. 

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