Coping with Stress in the Post-Sept. 11 World
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SUSAN DENTZER: In many respects, life in New York is getting back to normal — but not for everybody.
WOMAN: I’m scared to death because I’m hearing so many rumors and things are going on, and they’re not keeping us posted.
SUSAN DENTZER: Many New Yorkers are traumatized, whether by anthrax attacks, or by memories of what happened on Sept. 11.
MARY JOS: I lost a couple of very close friends. There’s no closure.
SUSAN DENTZER: Dr. Neal Cohen is New York City’s Commissioner of Health and Mental Health.
DR. NEAL COHEN: This tragedy has impacted on us all in New York — that’s eight million people. We feel very saddened, and it is leading to a mental health crisis of epidemic proportions, and one that we have never experienced before in a large city such as this.
SUSAN DENTZER: You don’t have to be standing here, about a block from ground zero, to know that what happened on Sept. 11 was unprecedented.
And just as people are struggling to name that experience– “the attack,” “the event”– mental health professionals are struggling to name what New Yorkers are experiencing.
The conventional diagnosis for some New Yorkers might be post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s a condition that can occur a month or more after people survive a traumatic event — in other words, about now. Clinical psychologist Marylene Cloitre, a specialist in anxiety and traumatic stress, tells about one patient she’s treated since 9/11.
MARYLENE CLOITRE, Clinical Psychologist: Well, I think for this person the underlying question was, “Am I crazy? I’ve lived a normal life. I was a bond trader, and now while I am trying to do work, I see a plane crashing into the building as if it’s real.”
So I was just able to tell them that that’s a posttraumatic stress symptom; that that is a flashback. It has a name, we know about it, and many people experience it.
SUSAN DENTZER: Other survivors are suffering both physically and mentally, and are dogged by painfully vivid recollections of the event.
SPOKESPERSON: You all right?
SUSAN DENTZER: Vasana Mututanont was just entering the first trade center building when it was hit. She was severely burned before fleeing the scene, then looked back to see the Towers collapse.
VASANA MUTUTANONT: I’m so afraid because I don’t know what is that sound all about, but then when I look up, you know, smoke on the Tower One, and I saw it with my eyes that the building shaking.
SUSAN DENTZER: You were terrorized.
VASANA MUTUTANONT: I think so. I kind of, you know, feel helpless, you know?
MARYLENE CLOITRE: The other part that belongs in this picture for people is a sense of tremendous grief. As they were escaping, what they saw on the ground were memos and shoes and personal effects that told them that, you know, there was life just 15 minutes before, and now they were basically in a battlefield of death.
SUSAN DENTZER: And that leads Cloitre to believe that a conventional diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder doesn’t begin to capture what people are experiencing.
MARYLENE CLOITRE: I would call this traumatic grief, this unusual amalgam of tremendous grief for overwhelming loss, you know, on a personal level of people, of our city being destroyed, of our way of life being challenged — are all losses — along with the actual trauma of being there, seeing it, smelling it, feeling it on one’s skin.
SUSAN DENTZER: Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder can diminish in three weeks with treatment, psychotherapy, and in some cases, antidepressant medication. But anthrax attacks and other threats are continuing to traumatize many.
As a result, psychologist Cloitre believes that some New Yorkers are experiencing not post-traumatic stress disorder, but rather a normal reaction of anxiety that may persist for a while.
MARYLENE CLOITRE: Can I in good conscience tell people that they are no longer in a situation that is threatening? I don’t think I can.
SUSAN DENTZER: A group that has been severely traumatized are relatives and colleagues of those killed at the World Trade Center.
Maureen Gilligan and Bill Dewan lost their younger brother, 35 year-old Gerard Dewan, who was one of 12 firefighters from this Manhattan firehouse killed that day.
MAUREEN GILLIGAN: We are actually praying to god that they find something, or some part of him; that we can bring him home and bury him with our parents. So we’re trying to hold off until that time comes. I don’t know how much longer we can…
BILL DEWAN:…Do it, I know.
MAUREEN GILLIGAN: Because as time goes on, I think it’s getting worse, just knowing that they’re there, and their bodies could be completely gone.
SUSAN DENTZER: Reporter: Firefighter Douglas DeGiorgio was one of Gerard Dewan’s colleagues.
DOUGLAS DeGIORGIO: I lost my best friends. It gets harder every day. There’s… The more funerals we go to, the more young children we see crying, wives crying, mothers burying their sons. It’s not right. You know, there’s something very wrong with that.
SUSAN DENTZER: Working with the city’s Health Department, the New York City Fire Department is helping firefighters and their families. Dr. Kerry Kelly and Malachy Corrigan are involved in that response.
MALACHY CORRIGAN, New York City Fire Department: Not only do we have 343 missing members of our units, but those members have, you know, approximately 280 spouses and moms and dads, brothers and sisters, and children, and we’re close to a thousand children without dads at this point.
DR. KERRY KELLY: We are going to be bringing in teams of peer counselors and clinicians to sit with the members and help them deal with the issues of bereavement, using that time to also identify members who need more than just reassurance, and need more specific care for their emotional needs.
SUSAN DENTZER: Then there are New York’s children. There’s particular concern that they may be highly vulnerable, based on the effects of the terrorist bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.
Dr. Stephen Hyman heads the National Institute of Mental Health.
DR. STEPHEN HYMAN, Director, National Institute of Mental Health: In the research in Oklahoma City, it became clear that kids even 100 miles from the epicenter of this terrorist act suffered a great deal– that a year after the event, fully one in six kids 100 miles away had some significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
SUSAN DENTZER: Luce De Palchi is an eighth-grader at Grace Church School in Manhattan.
LUCE DE PALCHI, Student: I had a dream that I was falling the night of that, falling from a tall building. Maybe that had to do something with it, but it never ended until I woke up. I never stopped falling.
SUSAN DENTZER: Some children are processing the experience through art.
Third- and fourth-graders at Grace Church School were in the midst of designing new versions of the Statue of Liberty when the attack came.
In this post attack drawing, the statue cradles the Towers of the World Trade Center in her arms. Other children seemed to have an instinctive grasp about one path to recovery.
BRAD SEILER, Student: Someone sent me this e-mail, a little poem, and it had various comparisons of things we did on Monday and Tuesday.
And so one of them was on Monday, we complained about waiting six minutes to get fast food, and on Tuesday, we waited six hours to give blood.
And so it’s things like that. It’s just, everyone wants to help and wants to give. It’s very… It’s very good.
MARYLENE CLOITRE: That is really the only way people get through this, and I think we as a nation will get through it, is to remember that despite the evil and the horror that we’ve experienced, that we need to search for and experience goodness with each other to remind us that, you know, human beings can be good as well as really terrible; that that is the only path to recovery.
SUSAN DENTZER: And a path that New Yorkers hope they can follow, despite all that has happened.