Aug. 11, 2000 The death of Princess Diana not only created a shared sense of mourning among Australians, it also had a much stronger impact on some people's physical and mental health, according to a new study.
Research conducted jointly by Adelaide and Flinders universities in Australia reveals there was a dramatic increase in demand for support group and counselling services in the city of Adelaide, South Australia in the weeks immediately following Diana Spencer's death.
More than 50% of services in metropolitan Adelaide that specialise in grief counselling experienced an increase in requests for help-not necessarily because those suffering grief were concerned for Diana or her family, but because her death had made them relive their own experiences of losing loved ones.
While most support services faced a 25% increase in calls from the public, one service received as much as 75% more calls. In many cases the services-including both specialist grief support services and the more general counselling ones-weren't prepared for the rise in need from grieving members of the public.
Princess Diana died from injuries received in a car crash in Paris on 31 August 1997. Her death shocked millions of people around the world in a way not felt since the assassination of US President John Kennedy in the 1960s.
Such high-profile deaths can have a major impact on the public, says Dr Sheila Clark (Department of General Practice, Adelaide University), who conducted the study with Mr Michael Bull (Department of Social Work & Social Administration, Flinders) and Ms Katherine Duszynski (General Practice, Adelaide).
"There've been papers written showing the impact that deaths of famous people have on psychiatric patients, but nothing's really been done before on the impact on the general public, how much it affects them and the way it affects them," Dr Clark says.
What surprised the researchers wasn't the increase in demand for grief-related support services, but the wide variety of reasons behind it. In most cases it was because Diana's death had reminded the public of their own losses. People sought counselling for past incidents such as:
*the death of a young person (particularly of Diana's age) or a child; *death of a young spouse (identifying with Charles); *death of parents (identifying with William and Harry); *an accidental death (in particular motor vehicle accident) or a suicide; *deaths in which media coverage was a feature.
People suffering anxiety disorders or post traumatic stress disorder were also deeply affected by Diana's death.
"There were a few who phoned up just because they were concerned about Diana and her family, but they were in the minority. The real issue was this 'retriggering' of people's grief," Dr Clark says.
"Some of these people were not only experiencing emotional issues but also physical health issues which accompanied their grief.
"Serious complications of grief include depression, anxiety, substance abuse-such as alcohol and medication abuse-relationship breakdown and days lost from work. Some of the people who phoned counselling services following Diana's death were using medication because of the resurgence of their own grief," she says.
Another major issue was the increased workload experienced by support services following such a public event.
"We asked the organisations what lessons they had learnt through this. Many of them felt that they were unprepared for the number of callers, that the people who worked in these organisations were emotionally unprepared, they were surprised at the impact Diana's death had had, and that the counsellors themselves-many of whom have suffered their own grief experiences-felt very drained as a result."
Dr Clark says in some small way, Diana's tragic death could serve a good purpose. She says there are many positives to come out of this research, such as showing support services the importance of being prepared for high-profile deaths.
"Although these deaths don't often happen, organisations should have a contingency plan for such events, and they should also have adequate numbers of back-up staff who they can call in when their resources are stretched.
"It may also lead to better education among the community about the kinds of services available to them, and how to better cope with personal grief."
Dr Clark's work in this area follows the highly successful launch late last year of Grieflink, a website, funded by the Department of Human Services, to provide information about the various grief-related support services available in South Australia. The site is a joint project between Adelaide University's Department of General Practice and the National Association for Loss and Grief (SA) Inc.
Grieflink recently won an international award from a US company for its "high quality and unique content". Other Australian States are now expressing an interest in expanding the SA website to encompass services offered throughout the nation.
To find out more, visit: http://www.grieflink.asn.au.
Media contact: Dr Sheila Clark, General Practice, (08) 8303 3463 (w), 0412 594 338 (mobile), (08) 8263 9388 (w) or (08) 8332 4218 (h).
Media photos at: http://www.adelaide.edu.au/PR/media_photos/
Rob Morrison, Media, Marketing & Publications Unit, Office of the Vice-Chancellor.
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