Lancaster lecturer whose life ‘changed forever’ on night of Manchester Arena bombing helps launch online survey to give survivors a voice

A Lancaster University lecturer who experienced the Manchester Arena bombing with her young son five years ago has spoken about how the life-changing event has led to her assisting young terrorism survivors.

Dr Cath Hill is working with nine young survivors of the attack and the National Emergencies Trust to help young people affected by terrorism long-term.

And today, Monday, they have launched an online survey which invites children and young people to share their experiences of the support they received since 2017 to identify what will be most effective to future young survivors of terror.

The survey forms part of Bee The Difference, a unique new research project giving young people affected by the attack a platform to voice their experiences for the first time and a chance to create better outcomes for future young survivors.

Bee The Difference is a collaboration between nine young survivors from the Manchester attack, UK disaster response charity, the National Emergencies Trust, and researchers from Lancaster University.

Lead researcher Dr Hill is a lecturer in social work, co-founder of the Manchester Survivors Choir and a member of the National Emergencies Trust’s Survivors Forum.

She was at the Ariana Grande concert on May 22 2017 with her son Jake, who was 10 at the time, when 22 people died after a suicide terrorist blew himself up as concertgoers left the venue.

It was Jake’s first ever live gig. He is now 15 and recovering well from the traumatic experience. He has since been to a concert, although not at Manchester Arena.

Cath Hill with members of the choir involved in the Bee The Difference project.

Dr Hill said: “I know through my experience with the choir that young people affected by the Manchester attack have sought support in a range of places - their GP, counsellors, teachers, social groups and social media.

“Some of this was incredibly helpful, some of it missed the mark completely, while some measures taken inadvertently introduced more trauma.

"Five years on it’s time to start to talk about this and make sure young people who experience similar events in the future get the best possible care.”

Ellie Taylor, one of the young survivors who has designed the research project, was 15 when she was caught up in the attack.

Emergency services working at the scene of the Manchester Arena Bombing. Picture: SWNS

She said: “Bee The Difference is a chance to take something that changed our lives completely in a negative way and turn it into something positive for the future.

"The questionnaire isn’t invasive. It’s not about your personal story and what you went through. It’s just a few questions to find out what worked mentally for you, and what didn’t help, so we can find out what needs to happen in the future.”

Ava Turner, another of the project’s designers, was just 10 when she was traumatised by the attack.

She said: “This project is about saying our opinions are valid. They are extremely valid and they do need to be brought up at some point. They can’t be hidden forever.”

Cath and Jake Hill at the One Love concert in Manchester. Photo by Cath Hill

Chief executive of the National Emergencies Trust Mhairi Sharp said: “Only those who have lived through an act of terror can truly understand the needs of those affected, which is why this project gives a vital voice to young Manchester survivors.

"The findings will inform the way our charity gives financial gifts to those affected by terror attacks.

"But we hope it will also provide insights to enable all areas of society to provide the best possible support to children and young people who are affected by terrorism in future.”

Later this year the anonymised survey findings will be shared with organisations who can help to make a difference to young people affected by terror; from government, to healthcare and education providers, to other civic and charitable bodies.

The nine young researchers who helped to design the study have created a video to raise awareness of the project.

It features the young women singing their own arrangement of Beyonce’s song ‘Listen’ to encourage as many young participants as possible to take part and have their voices heard, and can be watched on YouTube here.

Cath Hill, who was at the Manchester Arena bombing and has set up a support group called Bee The Difference. Photo: Kelvin Stuttard

The ‘Bee The Difference’ survey is open to all young people whose lives were affected by the attack in some way and who were aged under 18 at the time.

This includes those impacted by what happened to a loved one or friend, as well as those who were present at the arena when the attack happened.

To find out more and to take part in the survey visit www.nationalemergenciestrust.org.uk/beethedifference

Cath Hill’s story in her own words…

On May 22 2017 I took my youngest son, who was 10 at the time, to his first pop concert. It started as a wonderful night filled with singing, smiles, great music and a special energy in the Manchester Arena, because all the fabulous young people at the concert were all enjoying seeing their idol, Ariana Grande, and loving the experience. But as we all know, everything changed at the end of that performance.

I consider myself to be one of the lucky, unlucky ones. We were not in the foyer when the bomb went off but involved in the panic which ensued after. We were so fortunate to leave with our lives and not endure physical injury, but we’ve experienced the psychological scars that occur when you fear for your life, and survive, when others around you have died. That one night changed mine and my son’s, in fact my whole family’s, outlook on life forever.

One of the issues I have found the most troubling since the Manchester Arena attack is that, despite my training and professional expertise as a social worker working with children in crisis, on that day, and in the days afterwards, I prioritised my own son and his wellbeing and myself.

When I could see that there were hundreds of children separated from their parents, who were traumatised and in shock, I did not stay in Manchester to help.

I always imagined that I would be the type of person who would help, but when the unthinkable happened I just didn’t or couldn’t.

The reason I am now open about this is because it is from this feeling of guilt (which was on so many levels), that I found the strength and, perhaps more importantly, the focus to start to try to make a difference.

In 2018 I founded peer support group, the Manchester Survivors Choir, which continues to bring survivors of all ages together today. Then this year I’ve started a new research project called #BeeTheDifference, which is more squarely focused on the experiences of young Manchester survivors, like my son. For the first time since the attack, it is giving them a platform to have their voices heard.

As a mum, and through my role in the choir, I’ve become painfully aware of the very varying experiences of support that children and young people have had since the arena attack.

I’ve heard brilliant stories of supportive schools who brought in external trauma counsellors for children who’d been affected, stories of young people who received excellent care from statutory services or peer support from organisations like the brilliant NEST Victim Support in Lancashire.

But I’ve also heard far more stories than I can stomach of those who have received no professional support at all - children who desperately wanted someone to talk to about what had happened but who wasn’t a parent or family member that they would ‘burden’ with their feelings – and had no idea where to find help, or who to ask.

Just as bad are the stories of support that did more harm than good…

* A school that separated children affected into a classroom where they spent the day alone listening to news reports about what had happened

* GPs who dismissed feelings of anxiety and despair as something that would “improve on their own, with time”.

These are isolated examples of many.

It is a sad and quite shocking fact that almost nobody has heard these stories, or the many others like them.

In the more than five years since that night changed thousands of young lives forever, nobody has asked the children and young people affected about the support they have received since, and how helpful (or unhelpful) this has been.

That means that as it stands, nobody is learning those lessons. Nobody is making sure that the brilliant care can be replicated, or the gaps and glitches in the system can be “repaired” should the unthinkable ever happen again. This fact is in and of itself unthinkable.

But this week the launch of #BeeTheDifference is going to change this. At the heart of it is an online survey designed by and for young Manchester survivors.

The survey is open to anyone who was affected by the attack and under 18 at the time, whether they were at the Arena itself or affected indirectly through a family member or friend.

It’s easy to complete and asks questions about the support you’ve received since the attack. It’s completely anonymous and is open until mid-October this year.

With the support of project partners, UK disaster response charity, National Emergencies Trust, and Lancaster University, learnings from the #BeeTheDifference survey will be shared with organisations that can make a difference to young survivors of terror in the future.

Those in government, those working in education, health and social care, and other charities and bodies who work with children and young people facing trauma.

The more young people we can encourage to take part, the better our learnings will be, so I’d like to put out a personal plea for people to find out more or take part today.

Or if you know someone who might be eligible to take part, please do let them know about it.

As Alicia, one of the young people involved in the project so eloquently puts it: “No one should have to go through a traumatic event and suffer in silence.”

So now is the time for young Manchester Survivors to talk and we are here to listen to them and learn for them.

#BeeTheDifference is here to help to turn their personal challenges into positive change for the future.