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(photo credit: AP)
Teenagers who have a strong social support system are more resilient to depression after being exposed indirectly to suicide bombings than those who had little social support from friends before the incident.
This was discovered by Prof. Golan Shahar of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev's psychology department in Beersheba, working together with Dr. Christopher Henrich from Georgia State University.
"As this was a very rare prospective study instead of one carried out only retrospectively, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance," Shahar told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, after the study was published in the prestigious journal Pediatrics.
The team examined 90 adolescents in grades seven through nine who were indirectly exposed to a suicide bombing in Dimona on February 4, 2008. The researchers had interviewed the youths seven months before as a control group for studying stress and depression in Sderot youth.
However, when the suicide bombing occurred in the unlikely place of Dimona, the researchers decided to focus on the factors that might have a protective effect against developing depression as a result of a traumatic event such as a suicide bombing. They compared answers to questionnaires filled out before the Dimona incident and then a month afterward, Shahar told the Post.
None of the Dimona teenagers had directly witnessed the bombing, but some had heard the explosion, while others knew people who had suffered physical or emotional damage, or saw media reports of the attack, Shahar added.
While post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with physical and behavioral reactions to extreme stress, can result from witnessing or surviving a terror attack, Shahar said he had examined only the element of depression, which is often a separate result of such an incident.
"We had not asked questions about PTSD symptoms before the incident, so we couldn't make a comparison," he explained. "PTSD and depression are two different things that often follow trauma."
The fact that the attack occurred in Dimona, a small town that has rarely been targeted by terror, did not make the psychological reactions any milder or more severe, Shahar said. If the Dimona teenagers' reactions had been compared with counterparts living in Jerusalem, he suggested, Jerusalemites would probably have had more severe reactions, because exposure to numerous terror attacks "does not make one more resilient."
The BGU psychologist said that the study - funded by the Israel-USA Binational Science Foundation - "serves as a basis for the development of innovative preventive interventions for adolescents exposed to terror attacks."
Terrorism often leads to adolescent depression, said Shahar, but little is known about protective factors.
Teens reporting low levels of social support from friends before the bombing reacted with elevated depression to the suicide bombing. However, those who reported having high levels of social support from friends beforehand responded to the bombing with low levels of depression.
The effect of support by parents and school personnel could not be tested because of the lack of data.
Four weeks after the terror attack, participants were interviewed by phone about their bombing-related perceived stress. According to Shahar, "the results showed that bombing-related perceived stress was associated with an increase in continuous levels of depression from before to after the bombing. Pre-bombing social support from friends buffered against this effect.
"We found that the more socially happy adolescents were, the easier it was for them to protect against the depressogenic effect of terrorism-related perceived stress."