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Survivor guilt (or survivor's guilt; also called survivor syndrome or survivor's syndrome) is a mental condition that occurs when a person perceives themselves to have done wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not. It may be found among survivors of combat, natural disasters, epidemics, among the friends and family of those who have died by suicide, and in non-mortal situations such as among those whose colleagues are laid off. 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. 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.
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.
Survivor syndrome, also known as concentration camp syndrome (or KZ syndrome on account of the German term Konzentrationslager), 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, the Rape of Nanking, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. They are described as having a pattern of characteristic symptoms including anxiety and depression, social withdrawal, sleep disturbance and nightmares, physical complaints and mood swings with loss of drive. Commonly such survivors feel guilty that they have survived the trauma and others—such as their family, friends, and colleagues—did not.
Waylon Jennings was a guitarist for Buddy Holly's band and initially had a seat on the ill-fated aircraft on The Day the Music Died. But Jennings gave up his seat to the sick J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson, only to learn later of the plane's demise. 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. Jennings, who later became a country music star, expressed survivor's guilt about Richardson's death.
Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, haunted by his experiences in Auschwitz, explored his survivor's guilt extensively in his autobiographical books, notably in I sommersi e i salvati (The Drowned and the Saved). His death was reportedly a suicide, and towards the end of his life he suffered from depression, possibly induced by his experiences.
In the 1980 film, Ordinary People, based on the novel of the same name, Conrad Jarrett is a young man who struggles with surviving a sailing accident which killed his older brother. As Jarrett realizes that he is angry at his brother's recklessness, he confronts the very cause of his problems and begins to accept his own survival had nothing to do with his brother's death.
The TV Series Rescue Me follows the lives of firefighters post 9-11 in New York City, focusing on Tommy Gavin, a firefighter suffering from severe survivor guilt after the death of his fellow firefighter and cousin.
An episode of Law & Order:UK is entitled Survivors Guilt and involves one character coping with how his colleague was shot while he survived because he was called away to see his new grandson.