‘The IRA took both my arms, and gave me Post Traumatic Growth’

Concerns among veterans about suicide rates are mounting – but figures are not formally collected. Philip Bradfield and the Johnston Press Investigations Unit report

An RUC officer who lost both arms in an IRA attack has told how he experienced ‘post traumatic growth’ as a result of the attack.

Dr Michael Paterson lost his arms when he was 24

Dr Michael Paterson lost his arms when he was 24

Dr Michael Paterson OBE, 61, lost both his arms when a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) hit his Land Rover in 1981. He went on to become a psychologist, treating police and Army veterans of the Troubles for mental trauma.

Joining the RUC in 1979, the fateful attack took place on his wife’s birthday in 1981 when he was an observer in a Land Rover travelling up Suffolk Road, aged 24.

“We slowed down to go over a speed ramp and I was aware of an explosion on the left hand side. My first thought was that it was a blast bomb – ‘but we are safe in here’.

“Then I wondered ‘why aren’t we moving forward’ and I looked across at Alex Beck who was the driver and he was slumped over. It was clear he was dead.”

The rocket had burned through Alex’s door and then deflecting down, taking off my right arm above the elbow and the left arm below the elbow...

MPs: demand for mental health care for veterans and troops has doubled

He reached forward to turn the siren off.

“But I couldn’t because I had no arm on the right hand side. I could just see tatters of flesh hanging.

“The rocket had burned through Alex’s door and then deflecting down, taking off my right arm above the elbow and the left arm below the elbow, smashed up my left leg, burned up my door and exploded outside.”

If the armour on his vehicle had been thicker, the anti-tank rocket would have exploded inside and killed him, he said.

A long path to recovery and a new life began. He had to learn to use artificial arms, which was “a bit of a struggle” at the start.

Initially angry with political statements on television, as time went on “some natural healing occurred” and he could listen to what Sinn Fein was saying, and accept that this was “where they were coming from”.

He went back to school to take A-levels and now has Phds in health psychology and clinical psychology, specialising in training therapists in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), a technique used to treat PTSD.

Thankfully he did not develop PTSD himself; where some people might have three to four disturbing dreams a week after such an incident, he had just three in two years.

His only other symptom was that he would feel a knot in his stomach when he talked about the attack.

When he came to process it many years later with EMDR, an image “came up” of his missing arm, then the memory of the explosion returned, as did the knot in the stomach.

“Then, also focusing on that, tears flowed and that helped release it for me,” he said.

A key point which assists in such recovery, he said, is “good social support” such as ‘Help for Heroes’ and The Royal British Legion.

He notes work by Phd researcher Stephen Joseph who interviewed survivors of the 1987 Zeebrugge ferry disaster which claimed almost 200 lives. “What he found was that in about 40% of them there was actually post traumatic growth, in other words their lives actually improved since the trauma.”

The findings were that trauma does not necessarily lead towards suicidal thoughts. “It can also lead to people becoming more confident and their lives growing. And it certainly happened with me anyway that since this happened to me, things improved in my life.”

Dr Paterson went on to score quite highly on a scale for the phenomenon. “So there was clearly post traumatic growth for me.”

He treated around 200 former RUC officers and soldiers for Troubles-related trauma.

“Throughout the Northern Ireland conflict a number of RUC officers ended their lives through suicide, and some factors which fed into this are still present in retired officers,” he said.

“For those who have served in the police, and others, living with the recurring nature of psychological trauma can and does drag one’s mood down.”

It is a “traegdy” when this leads to people ending their lives, he said. An important first step for patients is to consult their GP, who can prescribe medication and make an onward referral.

The patient can then benefit from effective therapies such as EMDR and trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy, he added.

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• Dr Paterson’s web site is www.trauma-stress.co.uk