Young survivors of the Manchester Arena bombing urge greater support
Every time Alicia Taylor found herself in an enclosed space and saw someone holding a black bag, her heart would begin thudding rapidly and she feared a bomb was about to explode.
Alicia, now 19, was at the Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena on 22 May 2017 which was targeted by a suicide bomber as people left the venue, killing 22 people and injuring hundreds more.
Only 13 at the time, Alicia was deeply impacted by the trauma of being a survivor and knowing her mum, Christine, who was waiting for her in the foyer where the bomb was detonated, narrowly escaped death and witnessed terrible sights.
Following the ordeal, Alicia struggled to comprehend or deal with being affected by the terror attack and admits she went into a “hermit-like existence” as she dreaded danger lurking around the corner.
“Any situation where I was in an enclosed space or when I saw someone holding a black bag, I would be terrified there was a bomb in there and that my time had come,” she recalls.
“It took me around 18 months after the Manchester terror attack to have the courage to even get on a bus again and I did not really go anywhere and found it difficult to feel anything.
“I felt disconnected from society… The only places I went was school, swimming practice and home and was struggling to deal with what had happened.”
Alicia, of Leyland, Lancashire who is studying English Literature at Durham University, now realises, looking back, that she was desperately crying out for help and support to process the impact of being a survivor of a terror attack.
She says she feels “invalidated” at the lack of support she received following such trauma and reveals she was actually “re-traumatised” by thoughtlessness and inadequate understanding and wants no other young person to go through what she did.
Through meeting and speaking to other young people who were affected by the Manchester Arena terror attack, Alicia realised there were huge disparities in the mental health support for children – particularly those who weren’t physically injured, but living with the invisible psychological damage.
Alicia is one of nine young survivors of the Manchester bomb involved in a research project Bee The Difference, which gives young people affected by the Manchester terror attack a chance to voice their experiences for the first time, to help create better outcomes for future young survivors.
The project is a collaboration between the nine young survivors, researchers from Lancaster University and disaster response charity the National Emergencies Trust.
Young people affected by the Manchester Arena attack are urged to complete an online survey being launched today to share their experiences of the support they received – good or bad – to identify what help would be most beneficial for future young survivors of terror.
Alicia tells i she was at the Ariana Grande concert with a friend and the bomb went off as they were going down the steps towards the foyer where her mum and her friend’s parents were waiting for her.
“It was the first concert I went to with my friend without our parents and they were waiting for us in the foyer and the bomb went off as we were on our way out,” she remembers.
“I was a naive child and didn’t put two and two together. I just remember a distant sound like a drum, but didn’t feel any hint of danger at that point. It was only when another girl began leaping over the chairs yelling: ‘Run!’ that I realised something terrible had happened.”
Alicia and her friend went back inside the concert area and left through a different exit and once outside, the terrified young teenagers found an electricity box to hide behind as they desperately tried to contact their parents.
“It was only at that point that it dawned on me that the place where the loud sound had come from was where my mum was. My mum wasn’t answering her phone and didn’t for what felt like a long time. The reality hit me that my mum could be dead.
“I just felt dazed and people were running everywhere around us. My friend’s phone was flat so we only had my phone to keep trying to contact our parents.”
Alicia was reunited with her mum and says they made the journey home in silence, overwhelmed by the enormity of events. Alicia learned her mum was standing in the foyer where the bomb went off. Although she miraculously wasn’t injured, the loudness of the explosion has left her deaf in one ear.
“When I first saw my mum after it happened, she was inarticulate and not making sense and was in a lot of shock,” says Alicia. “My mum saw everything, but did not get hurt herself and was one of the only people left standing. There were people behind her who were injured.
“I didn’t realise the extent of what my mum went through in the foyer. She only recently told me some of the terrible things she saw as she didn’t want to traumatise me further when I was so young. She just felt so grateful I wasn’t with her when it happened and didn’t see the things she did.”
Alicia returned to school and was among other girls who had been at the concert. In hindsight, she realises the immediate support she and others desperately needed after being involved in such a traumatic incident just wasn’t there.
“Myself and my mum felt tremendous survivor’s guilt, especially my mum as she was surrounded by people in the foyer who had died or were injured.
“I had to continue my schooling as if it had not happened,” she says. “There was a room where pupils affected by what had happened could go for respite, but it wasn’t really effective.
“I had to rely on school to be my safe space. I had a stable and loving home life, but my mum was in shock and grappling to get help herself to grasp what had happened. She was not in a position to help me until she got help herself.
“Places like school had a really important role to minimise more damage to pupils, but did not acknowledge what was going on with me and my friends. As survivors of this attack, we were treated with little or no validation. The last thing a child needs after going through a traumatic and incident is to feel invalidated and as if their needs don’t matter.
“At the time, I was 13 and didn’t realise how wrong it was. I now realise I was really hurt by their ignorance of what I was going through.”
Alicia says that not only were she and others not provided with therapists or immediate support in the months following the terror attack, they were actually re-traumatised by an unannounced “bomb drill” around a year after the Manchester bombing.
“We were in a class when this awful siren went off,” she remembers. “Someone said it was the bomb alarm and we had to go into a lockdown situation.
“We had to crawl and huddle in a storeroom. There were a few of us who were survivors of the Manchester attack and one had a panic attack and another was crying. I remember crying in the corridor worrying about my mum and how it would affect her and thinking it was happening all over again.
“It was very triggering and set me and others back months.”
Alicia says that the Manchester attack brought her and her mum even closer together and describes her as her “best friend.” But she remembers her mum calling so many different places trying to get support and she tried to support her daughter while struggling herself.
“For the first year after the attack, I tried to heal myself,” Alicia recalls. “I did that through writing, art and music as I tried to express my feelings.
“My writing and artwork focused on the Manchester attack as I had to get it out somehow. Looking back, the school should have seen it as a cry for help as I was traumatised and needed support.”
Alicia and her mum joined the Manchester Survivors Choir and she says meeting other survivors who understand what they were going through was a huge help. She and her mum began therapy, but Alicia says it took almost a year after the attack before she got help.
Dr Cath Hill, the Bee The Difference project’s lead, a lecturer in social work at Lancaster University and co-founder of the Manchester Survivors Choir, is a survivor of the terror attack herself as she was at the concert with her son Jake, then 10.
She tells i how her own experience and involvement with the choir and other survivors made her realise that young people affected by the Manchester attack received patchy and disproportionate levels of support and there was an opportunity to learn from this and improve things for future young survivors of terror and disaster.
Cath reveals it was only a very last minute decision for her and Jake to go to the concert after her husband, who works for a tech company, received free tickets from his workplace and it was Jake’s first concert.
She describes herself and her son as among the “lucky unlucky ones” as although they left the concert at the same time the bomb went off, they left through a different exit and she says it was a while before she recognised them as survivors and the lasting impact it had made on them.
“We were frightened and scared and knew something awful had happened. But we did get to go home that night when we knew there were others that didn’t. We got to walk away,” she says. “But I felt I had to get on with it because there were so many other people who suffered so much more than us.
“Everyone kept telling us how lucky we were, but we felt anxious and upset and struggled to sleep and Jake had a lot of nightmares.”
Cath explains how survivor’s guilt can really consume your thoughts and admits she felt “wretched” that she had not been able to do anything to help as she had been focused on getting her own child to safety.
It was only a second brush with a terror-related incident that forced Cath to seek help and culminated in her co-founding the Manchester Survivor’s Choir and becoming a member of the National Emergencies Trust’s Survivor’s Forum.
“We went on holiday to Cambrils in Spain in the August following the Manchester terror attack,” she explains. “We booked the holiday thinking we needed to live life to the full after what had happened.
“But while we were there, the Barcelona terror attacks happened and hours later, some of the terrorists drove into pedestrians in Cambrils, killing one woman and injuring others.
“We were safe, but it happened just down the road from our hotel. It was terrifying and it prompted me to get support for myself and Jake.”
Cath recalls how at 10, Jake had just got to the cusp of independence and had been starting to go to the park and play with friends on his own. But overnight, that stopped as Jake’s sense of safety was completely undermined.
“Jake became extremely worried and kept fearing the worst would happen at every opportunity. Even when I went to get petrol, he would come inside with me when I went to pay rather than stay in the car on his own.
“Everything he felt around going to places and feeling safe such as to a concert or on holiday had been damaged. He would talk to me about it, but I would well up with tears as I was so involved so he didn’t want to upset me by bringing it up.”
Cath tried to get support for Jake but was initially told the waiting list was a year long. She eventually managed to get him support early through the charity Victim Support, but says this was only due to her being a social worker and knowing where to go for help. It helped Jake, now 15, with his confidence and gave him the opportunity to talk about how he was feeling.
After connecting with other survivors and setting up the Manchester Survivor’s Choir, Cath realised their experience and the issue of young people struggling to get mental health support following the terror attack was not unusual.
“People were being referred to services that had already been decimated by cuts and were being told the waiting lists were 18-months long,” she says. “It is not cost effective as if you leave young people without the right support, it can lead to a more problematic crisis situation.”
Through her involvement with survivors, Cath learned that young people affected by the Manchester attack had sought help in a range of places, such as their GP, counsellors, teachers and social media.
“Some of it was incredibly helpful, some of it missed the mark completely, while some measures taken inadvertently introduced more trauma,” she says.
“Five years on, it’s time to start to talk about this and make sure young people who experience similar events in the future get the best possible care.”
Cath says she realises it is daunting when preparing for future disasters to carry out research with young people for fear of re-traumatising them. This is why she says it is crucial that young survivors have been at the heart of the Bee The Difference project.
“The shocking thing among the young survivors involved in the project is the difference and lack of consistency in the support they received,” she says. “We want to ask young people affected by the Manchester attack about their experiences of support so their voices can be heard and so their suffering is not in vain and the country is prepared for the future.”
Mhairi Sharp, chief executive of the National Emergencies Trust, says: “Only those who have lived through an act of terror can truly understand the needs of those affected, which is why this project gives a vital voice to young Manchester survivors.
“We hope it will provide insights to enable all areas of society to provide the best possible support to children and young people who are affected by terrorism in future.”
The online survey will not have invasive questions or ask young people to relive their personal story, but will ask them what worked or didn’t work mentally for them to inform changes for the future.
The anonymised survey findings will be shared later this year with organisations who can make a difference to young people affected by terror, from Government to healthcare, education and charitable bodies.
For Alicia and other young survivors, finding some positives out of something so terrible is imperative to make a difference for the future.
“There are parts of my personality which changed that night which will never be the same,” she says. “I still get anxious and easily stressed and it affects my relationships with others.
“This project is for my 13-year-old self,” she says. “I am doing it for her and all the other children who felt they were not listened to and that their needs were not met.
“No one should go through a traumatic event and feel like they are silenced afterwards.
“It is time for more voices to be heard to tackle disparities when it comes to disaster planning for the future. We need to know what support young people got, what they didn’t get – and more importantly, what didn’t work and could be improved.
“I don’t want any child in the future to go through the invalidation I felt.”
The Bee The Difference survey is open to all young people whose lives were affected by the Manchester attack in some way and who were aged under 18 at the time. This includes those impacted by what happened to a loved one or friend, as well as those at the arena when the attack happened. To take part in the online survey, visit: www.nationalemergenciestrust.org.uk/bethedifference