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Wednesday 5 April 2023 10:34am

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Preliminary findings from The March 15 Project were presented at a symposium at Otago's Christchurch campus, highlighting psychological impacts in the aftermath of the Christchurch terror attacks.

Preliminary findings from a study of the psychological aftermath of the 2019 Christchurch terrorist attacks show, among other things, both an increase in terrorism anxiety and an increase in the sense of “community” following the incidents, yet no reported changes in either psychological distress or wellbeing.

The terror attacks on two mosques in Christchurch on March 15 four years ago were unprecedented in Aotearoa New Zealand.

In an effort to understand the effects of these devastating events on the Christchurch Muslim community, the University of Otago, Christchurch's Department of Psychological Medicine initiated The March 15 Project – to study the psychological aftermath of the terrorist attacks, and to understand them within the context of similar incidents internationally.

Preliminary findings from The March 15 Project were presented in a recent day-long symposium held at the campus' Rolleston Lecture Theatre on 21 March , showcasing work from the Project's research team alongside guest lectures from international speakers in the field of incident trauma.

The symposium opened with a karakia from kaumatua Rangihau Te Moana, followed by a dua from Imam Ibrahim Abdelhalim. Dean and Head of Campus Professor Suzanne Pitama welcomed attendees – including many from the city's Muslim community.

March 15 Project researchers Associate Professor Caroline Bell and Dr Ruqayya Sulaiman-Hill gave the first presentation, discussing findings from the first phase of their long-term study into the impacts on members of the community directly affected by the attacks. They spoke of the challenges associated with conducting research in such a highly-exposed population, and the requirements they needed to meet to establish a culturally-responsive, participatory and trauma-informed design process.

They noted the impacts and challenges the tragedy inflicted upon the well-being and mental health of closely-affected community members. However, they also spoke of self-reported positive outcomes from many participants - including high levels of measures rating religious coping and post traumatic growth. A qualitative study, presented by Project co-researcher Dr Shaystah Dean, provided a deeper understanding of some of the unique challenges participants faced and how they coped. The Project team concluded that taken together, these findings will be helpful for the Muslim community in planning the ongoing support services they require.

The March 15 Project is collaborative, involving the University of Otago, Christchurch, University of Canterbury and Te Whatu Ora Canterbury, and is funded the Health Research Council of NZ and the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation.

This was followed by a presentation from Professor Martin Dorahy from the University of Canterbury, discussing the impacts of the mosque attacks on the New Zealand population as a whole. Using data from the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Surveys recorded both before and after the attacks, his findings show both an increase in terrorism anxiety and an increase in the sense of “community” following the incidents, yet no reported changes in either psychological distress or wellbeing. He discussed how this delivers insight into the psychological implications of politically-motivated violence on the wider population when terrorism is directed toward a specific minority group.

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Professor David Forbes, Director of the Phoenix Australia Centre for Post Traumatic Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, shared his insights into managing community responses following trauma.

In the aftermath of the attacks, members of the March 15 Project research team, including Associate Professor Bell and Head of the Department of Psychological Medicine, Professor Richard Porter, consulted widely with international researchers – who they say were generous in giving of their time and expertise.

One such researcher was Professor Lori Zoellner from the University of Washington's Department of Psychology, and Director of the University of Washington Centre for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress in Seattle. Professor Zoellner, the first of two international guest speakers to present at the symposium, reported findings from her ground-breaking Islamic faith-based, community-led program, developed to support Somali refugees in the United States and a similar programme in Somalia.

Following lunch and prayers, Linwood mosque survivor and researcher Dr Mazharuddin Syed Ahmed, discussed findings from his work, outlining the positive impacts of publicly written messages and acts of aroha on those most closely affected by the mosque attacks. Mazhar provided a personal and moving description of this, explaining how widely and swiftly this community support spread. His research examines how aroha can combat negative and racist messages promulgated through social media.

Professor David Forbes, Director of the Phoenix Australia Centre for Post Traumatic Mental Health from within the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne, was the symposium's second international guest speaker. He provided an overview of his extensive experience managing community responses following trauma, with a focus on the Australian bushfires. He also discussed the impacts of multiple trauma on populations as a whole, and various interventions for recovery.

Concluding the symposium on a positive note, Professor Porter discussed findings from his body of research into the effects of trauma on the brain. His results have shown that although people affected by the 2010-2011 Christchurch earthquakes experienced changes in brain function two years after the events, these changes had reverted to normal healthy levels seven to eight years later.

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