During the Erebus recovery operation, a police representative voiced concerns over the possible side effects on his staff, and their ability to maintain their “functional efficiency” afterward. In 1980, in response to those concerns, Doctors Taylor and Frazer from Victoria University in Wellington proposed to research the “deleterious effects of the body recovery work in Antarctica, and extend this to include the effects of victim identification.” (Taylor and Frazer, 1980).
The specific aims of the study were:
- To monitor the psychological effects of stress arising from the body recovery and victim identification work.
- To offer professional help to anyone who might need it.
- To obtain information that might be of use to the training of future body recovery and victim identification workers.
- To design research, select appropriate tests and develop procedures that might be of help for similar projects in the future, should the necessity arise.
Taylor and Frazer collected data from their subjects primarily through structured questionnaires and interviews. Two questionnaires were prepared – one for the “Erebus Rescue” group, and one for the “Victim Identification” group. The Erebus Rescue group consisted of individuals who spent time on Mt Erebus; and the Victim Identification group consisted of team members who worked at Mt Erebus, the aircraft landing strip and the mortuary, and were, in some way, involved in the identification of the 257 bodies (Taylor and Frazer, 1980).
Of the 223 people who participated in the Erebus recovery operation, 182 took part in the study. The subjects completed a process that included a questionnaire and clinical appraisal and interview. The process was repeated 12 weeks later. (Taylor and Frazer, 1980).
The interviews were designed to:
- Obtain a descriptive account of the disaster scene and of the recovery work.
- Detect any emotional reactions during the interview.
- Make clinical assessment and referrals as might be indicated.
- Give reassurance to the subjects that their reactions to the disaster stress need not be a reflection on their instability, inadequacy and psychopathology.
Those who took part included individuals from the New Zealand Antarctic Research Expeditions (NZARP), New Zealand Police (NZP), United States Navy (USN), and “New Zealand Aviation” (presumed to be RNZAF pilots).
Summary of the Results
“Information was obtained about the stressors of the assignment and the psychological defences that the subjects consciously and unconsciously employed. The concept of disaster stress was invoked, a classification of victims proposed, and assessments made of the stress generated by the situation.” (Taylor and Frazer, 1980).
The study indicated that 38.5% of the participants were adversely affected by their experiences at Mt Erebus, but cognitive, emotional and behavioural disturbances eventually diminished over a period of three months. Importantly, subjects’ stress levels reduced if emotional debriefing was introduced as a routine post-incident measure.
The subjects who suffered the least amount of stress were identified as those who adopted ‘perceptual defences’ which aided them in overcoming their initial revulsion to their allotted task. They also acknowledged a need to express feelings of grief about the calamity. (Taylor and Frazer, 1980).