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Dutch brace to pick up pieces, again

New Delhi, July 18: The Netherlands is bracing for the aftermath of yet another air tragedy, the scale of this one numerically akin to India losing about 13,500 people.

The Malaysia Airlines flight had 192 Dutch nationals among the 298 people on board. For a nation with an estimated population of 16.8 million people, the mathematical Rule-of-Three (based on proportionality) would cast the tragedy into something equivalent to India, with an estimated population of 1.2 billion, losing about 13,500 people in a single disaster.

But a long history of coping with air disasters and a network of trauma psychology clinics could help the Netherlands come to terms with the latest tragedy.

“The number we’ve lost is large, this crash will have a big impact,” said Twan Driessen, a clinical psychologist and director of Centre ‘45, a clinic that was set up to help people affected by the Second World War but which has since then assisted victims of various disasters.

But the Netherlands has a “good system in place” to track people affected by such tragedies in the aftermath and in the long-term to help them cope with trauma, Driessen told The Telegraph on phone.

Psychologists in the Netherlands have in the past had to provide services to people affected by at least three major aircraft disasters that claimed Dutch nationals — a runway collision between a KLM Boeing 747 and a PanAm Boeing 747 on the Spanish island of Tenerife in 1977, the crash of an El Al cargo aircraft near Amsterdam in 1992, and an Afriqiyah Airways crash in Tripoli, Libya, in 2010.

“We’ve learnt a lot from the earlier air disasters,” Berthold Gersons, a professor of psychiatry at the Academy Medical Centre, University of Amsterdam said.

Malaysia Airlines has offered to fly relatives of the MH-17 passengers to Ukraine, but Gersons believes first-hand views of the crash site won’t help relatives.

“When someone dies, a relative wants to see the deceased to kiss and say farewell,” Gersons said. “But in Ukraine, they will see terrible debris and perhaps even disfigured family members in a strange environment.”

Clinical psychologists estimate that between 1 per cent and 10 per cent of the surviving family members of such air disasters could develop mental health disorders such as bereavement disorder, phobia of flying, depression or addiction.

Gersons, who has advised the Dutch government during major disasters such as the El Al air crash of 1992 and a fireworks disaster in 2000, said experience with earlier tragedies suggests that people affected will go through several phases.

He said the first 36 hours is typically marked by a phase of numbed silence, then about a week of anger followed by a phase during which the affected persons cluster around each other and feel “connected in their grief”.

This is followed by what psychologists call a phase of “disillusionment” during which attention fades out and practical problems such as finances, loneliness, and depression become dominant. But eventually people accept the loss and continue with their lives, slipping into what clinicians call the integration phase.