4th September 2002
9-11: Post Trauma
by Martin Page © 2002
Senior Lecturer in Health Studies
Course Leader for MSc Trauma and Disaster Management Studies,
University of Lincoln
A year ago most people had little idea of Osama bin Laden or al- Qaeda. Today it is reasonable to assume that most people around the world, and particularly the developed world, will have a relatively clear understanding of both. Those who watched the television reports on and immediately following September 11th 2001 will remember the awful pictures of the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Thousands of people were killed, thousands were injured, and I suggest that tens of thousands of observers can still recall watching helplessly as the tragedy ran its course. The events of September 11th are what is known as a Life Event.
The possibility of lasting effects is difficult to gauge. It is now known that air traffic controllers knew that something terrible was about to happen, but were powerless to do anything. Firefighters and other uniformed emergency services were facing their biggest challenge ever, and the people of New York and Washington did whatever they could to help. Each of these groups had a role as observers and in many cases they experienced the deep frustration of not being able to do anything.
Now, one year later, much has been written about the events. New internationally viable policies have emerged that are designed to integrate a range of services, should such a trauma occur again. The security of the citizens of the free world has become a priority, and new technologies are under development to address this.
Yet still there is a need to help at a basic human level. The close and extended families and friends of those who perished are in our thoughts, but there are other groups who might be overlooked. For example, the people who were not related to the victims, but who were supporting the first response. Likewise the truck drivers who took the debris away from the centre of New York, and the construction workers and rescue agencies which cleared the Pentagon and the crash site in Pennsylvania.
Some may be suffering from the effects of trauma. They may compare their situation with the families of the victims and consider that they do not have a problem. The truth is that they might. It is never enough to say, “Someone else has it worse, therefore your problem doesn’t exist.” The reality is that the trauma may have other strange and erroneous components attached, such as guilt and shame. An example could be those who were aware that a disaster was about to occur, but were utterly powerless to do anything.
Some who were at the site and who survived the tragedy might be receiving help with their psychological trauma, but those who were not able to help might assess themselves as ‘having it easy’ and so might not access help. It is quite possible that they will in fact be suffering flashbacks and nightmares in the same way that the survivors and rescuers are.
Those intense flashbacks and memories could still trigger an emotional response. If that is the case the individual is showing signs of traumatic stress. It could be coupled with those corrosive feelings of shame and guilt, and a perpetual search for a reason ‘why?’ Yet it can be treated effectively by trauma counselling and other therapies for traumatic stress.
Families and friends can play their part as well. In fact they can play a vital role in helping someone who is suffering severe stress. Each of us is capable of listening to a friend. Each of us can share a quiet moment with a loved one, and these are the basic skills that hold so much potency when helping trauma victims. Spending time and listening without making suggestions to ‘pull yourself together’ is a good start. Of course, making contact with a counsellor or psychotherapist will help too.
On the anniversary of the events of September 11th we will share the moment with the families and friends of the victims. Perhaps we might also remember our own emergency service personnel and their families.
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Jez Ashberry, Press and Media Relations Manager
University of Lincoln
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