Survivor guilt

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Survivor guilt or survivor's guilt (but also survivor syndrome, survivor's syndrome, survivor disorder and survivor's disorder) is a mental condition that occurs when a person believes they have done something wrong by surviving a traumatic or tragic event when others did not.[1]

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 post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


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, air-crashes and wide-ranging job layoffs.[2] 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.

Stephen Joseph, a psychologist at the University of Warwick, has studied the survivors of the capsizing of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise which killed 193 of the 459 passengers. His studies showed that 60 percent of the survivors suffered from survivor guilt. Joseph went on to say:[3]

There were three types:

  • first, there was guilt about staying alive while others died;
  • second, there was guilt about the things they failed to do – these people often suffered post-traumatic 'intrusions' as they relived the event again and again;
  • third, there were feelings of guilt about what they did do, such as scrambling over others to escape. These people usually wanted to avoid thinking about the catastrophe. They didn't want to be reminded of what really happened.

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.[4]

Survivor syndrome[edit]

Trousers from a concentration camp uniform owned by Shimson Kleuger, interned in three KZ camps. Kleuger increasingly isolated himself in the family mansion, likely as a result of trauma left by the experiences of the Holocaust.

Survivor syndrome, also known as concentration camp syndrome (or KZ syndrome on account of the German term Konzentrationslager),[5] 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, or the Rape of Nanjing.[6]

In 1949, Eddy de Wind, a Dutch psychiatrist and survivor of Auschwitz concentration camp, introduced the term "concentration camp syndrome" regarding the psychological consequences of persecution, describing the "pathological after-effects" unique to former prisoners of Nazi concentration and extermination camps. The subsequently well-documented syndrome among Holocaust survivors includes anxiety and depression, intellectual impairment, social withdrawal, sleep disturbance and nightmares, physical complaints and mood swings with loss of drive. Several studies have examined the "chronic and progressive" nature of the condition, with symptoms increasing in intensity as survivors age.[7][8]

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 post-traumatic stress disorder.[9]

AIDS survivor syndrome[edit]

AIDS survivor syndrome refers to the psychological effects of living with the long-term trajectory of the AIDS epidemic and includes survivor's guilt, depression, and feelings of being forgotten in contemporary discussions concerning HIV.[10] While AIDS survivor syndrome has not been recognized as a pathologizable illness by the NIH (as of December 2017), scientific research and publications are available that address this issue.[11]


Waylon Jennings[edit]

American musician Waylon Jennings was a guitarist for Buddy Holly's band and initially had a seat on the ill-fated aircraft on February 3, 1959, which would later come to be known as "the day the music died". Jennings, however, gave up his seat to the sick J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson, only to later learn of the plane's crash. When Holly learned that Jennings was not going to fly, he said, "Well, I hope your ol' bus freezes up." Jennings responded, "Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes." This exchange of words, though made in jest at the time, haunted Jennings for the rest of his life.[12][13]

Stoneman Douglas High School shooting[edit]

On February 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz went into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and shot randomly at students and staff, killing 17 people and injuring 17 others. Sydney Aiello, whose close friend was killed, struggled with survivor's guilt, and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. On March 17, 2019, Aiello died by suicide at the age of 19.[14] Less than a week later, on March 23, Coral Springs police announced that Calvin Desir, a juvenile male student from Stoneman Douglas, had been found dead as a result of an apparent suicide.[15]

Stephen Whittle[edit]

Stephen Whittle was a Liverpool F.C. fan who had bought a ticket for the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest F.C. on 15 April 1989, but sold his ticket to a friend due to work reasons. The friend (whom he and his family have chosen to leave unidentified) was one of the 97 victims of the human crush at that game. Whittle became unable to go to football matches due to his guilt and related feeling of responsibility for his friend's death, and died by suicide on 26 February 2011, almost 22 years after the ill-fated match.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Murray, Hannah; Pethania, Yasmin; Medin, Evelina (2021-09-16). "Survivor Guilt: A Cognitive Approach". Cognitive Behaviour Therapist. 14: e28. doi:10.1017/S1754470X21000246. ISSN 1754-470X. PMC 7611691. PMID 34557258.
  2. ^ JoNel Aleccia, "Guilty and stressed, layoff survivors suffer, too", NBC News, December 15, 2008
  3. ^ Joseph, S., Yule, W., & Williams, R. (1994). The Herald of Free Enterprise disaster: The relationship of intrusion and avoidance to subsequent depression and anxiety. Behaviour research and therapy, 32(1), 115-117.
  4. ^ Bonnie S. Fisher, Steven P. Lab. Encyclopedia of Victimology and Crime Prevention, SAGE, 2010, p. 33, ISBN 978-1-4129-6047-2
  5. ^ Ryn, Z (February 1990). "The evolution of mental disturbances in the concentration camp syndrome (KZ-syndrom)". Genet Soc Gen Psychol Monogr. 116 (1): 21–36. PMID 2184095.
  6. ^ Walt Odets, "In the Shadow of the Epidemic: Being HIV-Negative in the Age of AIDS Archived 2018-02-21 at the Wayback Machine", 1995.
  7. ^ Lebovic, Matt; Gross, Judah Ari (18 January 2020). "The only novel written at Auschwitz is finally to be published in English". The Times of Israel. Retrieved 2020-01-21.
  8. ^ Raphael, Beverley, (1986). When disaster strikes. pp. 90-91. Century Hutchinson, London.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ "What is AIDS Survivor Syndrome – Lets Kick ASS". Lets Kick ASS. 2016-08-08. Retrieved 2017-11-30.
  11. ^ Broun, Stacy N. (1998-06-01). "Understanding "Post-AIDS Survivor Syndrome": A Record of Personal Experiences". AIDS Patient Care and STDs. 12 (6): 481–488. doi:10.1089/apc.1998.12.481. ISSN 1087-2914. PMID 11361996.
  12. ^ VH1's Behind the Music "The Day the Music Died" interview with Waylon Jennings.
  13. ^ "Waylon's Buddy: Jennings Never Forgot His Mentor". CMT.
  14. ^ "Parkland survivor takes her own life just more than one year after deadly mass shooting". Aol. News. March 22, 2019.
  15. ^ Madan, Monique (24 March 2019). "Second Parkland shooting survivor kills himself, police confirm". Miami Herald. Retrieved 24 March 2019.
  16. ^ "The 97th Hillsborough victim: Fan sold ticket to friend who died in disaster". The Independent. 2012-09-16. Retrieved 2022-11-02.

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