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Where are 9/11 now part 3: How flight travel affected mental health post 9/11

In the weeks and months that followed the terror acts of September 11, 2001, millions of Americans decreased their domestic air travel. Americans’ preference of car travel, measured in terms of miles traveled via automobile, increased by 5.3 percent on the interstate highways (Driving deaths and injuries post-9/11, October 2011). It seemed suggestive that people opted to drive long distances rather than fly, for fear of terrorism-related death in airplanes.

Americans post-9/11 were more inclined to face the mortality risks of long-distance car travel, rather than adopting the minimally associated risk of air travel. The psychological effects of the 9/11 terror acts resulted in a secondary toll of deaths as people made poor choices to avoid misperceived risks (Myers 2001).

In the wake of 9/11, airport security underwent a series of major upgrades (Meyers, March 2008). Once largely provided by private companies, security is now overseen by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

“With all the security cues-beginning with the orange or red threat level colors-it’s an incubator for stress,” said psychologist Daniel Shapiro, Ph.D., a negotiation expert who has worked with police hostage teams.

However, for Americans with serious mental illnesses, air travel these days is even more stressful. In some cases, it has proven to be fatal.

In 2005, Rigoberto Alpizar, a man battling bipolar disorder, became severely agitated and demanded to get off a flight preparing for takeoff at Miami International Airport. The situation turned so that he ran up the aisle of the parked plane and onto the tarmac. Federal marshals, convinced that he had a bomb in his backpack, shot and killed him.

Since 9/11, passengers with mental disorders were increasingly mistaken for being possible terrorists. What makes matters even worse is the lack of training for airport and airline personnel to distinguish between a security risk and mental illness.

“There’s been so much focus on terrorism that responding to people in psychiatric distress is not even on the radar,” said Ron Honberg, J.D., national director for policy and legal affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Even though the TSA did develop specialized behavioral training for certain personnel in 2006, the emphasis has always been focused upon detecting potential security risks rather than harmless yet stressed-out passengers. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spokesperson Alison Duquette, regulations require the airlines to have procedures in place for handling passengers who are disruptive or may not be in touch with reality. However, the training is basic, not giving specific strategies for spotting or calming someone with a mental health issue, said Corey Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants.

“Training is really important,” claimed Honberg. “Training needs to be aimed at more than law enforcement personnel. It needs to include airline employees, flight attendants, security and screening personnel at airports. How they respond can make the difference between life and death.”

Training should encompass teaching air marshals, police at airports and other personnel about the symptoms of mental illness and how to incorporate de-escalation techniques whenever the situation requires. NAMI has worked with police departments across the country to develop de-escalation protocols for crisis situations involving mental illness. These include not crowding the person with a mental disorder and speaking calmly and honestly.

“The key is building some kind of alliance with the challenging person,” stated Shapiro.

If you or someone you know is battling a mental illness as a result of PTSD or another traumatic experience, the 24/7 Recovery Helpline is available to help you. Call us at any time to get started

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