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Survivor guilt or survivors syndrome is a type of remorse felt by people who manage to survive a tragic event] involving much loss of life, especially the lives of friends and loved ones or other people commonly associated with the survivor. Sufferers often feel guilty that they and their family get to move on with their lives, whereas other people and their families were not as lucky. It is commonly summed up by the phrase "I should have died with them" or even "I should have died instead of them".

It may be found among survivors of combat, natural disasters, epidemics, among the friends and family of those who have committed suicide, and in non-mortal situations such as among those whose colleagues are laid off. The experience and manifestation of survivor's guilt will depend on an individual's psychological profile. When the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV) was published, survivor guilt was removed as a recognized specific diagnosis, and redefined as a significant symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

History[edit | edit source]

Survivor guilt was first identified during the 1960s. Several therapists recognized similar if not identical conditions among Holocaust survivors. Similar signs and symptoms have been recognized in survivors of traumatic situations including combat, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and wide-ranging job layoffs.[1] A variant form has been found among rescue and emergency services personnel who blame themselves for doing too little to help those in danger, and among therapists, who may feel a form of guilt in the face of their patients' suffering.

Sufferers sometimes blame themselves for the deaths of others, including those who died while rescuing the survivor or whom the survivor tried unsuccessfully to save.[2]

Survivor syndrome[edit | edit source]

Survivor syndrome, also called concentration camp syndrome, or called KZ syndrome on account of the German term Konzentrationslager,[3] are terms which have been used to describe the reactions and behaviors of people who have survived massive and adverse events, such as the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanking, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic.[4] They are described as having a pattern of characteristic symptoms including anxiety and depression, social withdrawal, sleep disturbance and nightmares, physical complaints and emotional lability with loss of drive.[5] Commonly such survivors feel guilty that they have survived the trauma and others—such as their family, friends, and colleagues—did not.

Both conditions, along with other descriptive syndromes covering a range of traumatic events are now subsumed under posttraumatic stress disorder.[6]

Social responses[edit | edit source]

Template:Expand section Sufferers may with time divert their guilt into helping others deal with traumatic situations. They may describe or regard their own survival as insignificant. Survivors who feel guilty sometimes suffer self-blame and clinical depression.[citation needed]

Treatment[edit | edit source]

Early disaster response and grief therapy methods both attempt to prevent survivor guilt from arising. Where it is already present, therapists attempt to recognize the guilt and understand the reasons for its development. Next, a therapist may present a sufferer with alternative, hopeful views on the situation. The emotional damage and trauma is then recognized, released and treated. With growing self-confidence the survivor's guilt may be relieved, and the survivor may come to understand that the traumatic event was the result of misfortune, not of the survivor's actions. Once able to view himself or herself as a sufferer, not one who caused suffering, the survivor can mourn and continue with life.

See also[edit | edit source]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. JoNel Aleccia, "Guilty and stressed, layoff survivors suffer, too",, December 15, 2008
  2. Bonnie S. Fisher, Steven P. Lab. Encyclopedia of Victimology and Crime Prevention, SAGE, 2010, p. 33, ISBN 978-1-4129-6047-2
  3. The evolution of mental disturbances in the concentration camp syndrome (KZ-syndrom). URL accessed on 2010-12-07.
  4. Walt Odets, "In the Shadow of the Epidemic: Being HIV-Negative in the Age of AIDS", 1995.
  5. Raphael Beverley, (1986). When disaster strikes. PP 90-91. Century Hutchinson, London.
  6. Wilson JP, & Raphael B Editors. Theoretical and Conceptual Foundations of Traumatic Stress Syndromes. The International Handbook of Traumatic Stress Syndromes, p. 1. Plenum Press, New York. 1993.

Further reading[edit | edit source]

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