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Where are 9/11 survivors now part 4: The impact of 9/11 on mental health care

Terrorism is an assault on mental health and well-being of the public. Its goals are to create panic, fear and anxiety. The attacks on the WTC affected the mental health of millions creating psychological distress, exacerbating mental disorders among some smaller populations and threatened social cohesion, one of the foundations for mental health.

New York City Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Alcoholism Services (DMH), in association with other agencies led the mental health response in the wake of the attacks (Implications of the World Trade Center Attack for the Public Health and Health Care Infrastructures). Within a few days of the attack, three priorities were identified.

First was to provide crisis intervention to bereaved families, survivors and workers at Ground Zero. Second was the development of a long-range plan to provide mental health services to those affected. A third priority was to maintain the public mental health system in which the DMH funded more than 1,000 agencies to care for almost 300,000 people with mental illness or disabilities.

The following assessment of Lower Manhattan residents revealed that 40 percent reported symptoms suggestive of PTSD. Less than a third of respondents had received supportive counseling.

Like many other major disasters, 9/11 brought with it a host of psychological repercussions, one of the most severe being PTSD.

In general, the prevalence of PTSD usually declines steadily in the months and years after a traumatic event. A telephone survey of 1,008 adults from a random sample of households in Lower Manhattan in October and November 2001 found that 7.5 percent reported WTC-related symptoms of PTSD and 9.7 percent reported symptoms of current depression. Symptoms were more severe for those closer to the site and those who had lost property or relatives. Subsequent studies revealed that despite the gradual decline, some symptoms persisted more than three months after the attack.

“Research on 9/11-related PTSD has challenged the ways in which mental health researchers assess exposure to trauma,” said Yuval Neria of Columbia University’s psychiatry and epidemiology departments.

At the time of the September 11 attacks, the accepted protocol for handling large-scale traumatic events was to perform critical incident stress debriefing that involved discussing events and assessing psychological reactions (Harmon, 10 September 2011).

In the past decade, however, research has shown that such interventions might be too brief to allow for adequate emotional processing, may increase anxiety levels or may unintentionally decrease the likelihood that individuals will pursue more intense interventions.

Since the late 1990s, the trauma-response field has been moving towards what is known as psychological “first aid.” This triage approach is designed to reduce distress, enable short- and long-term adaptive functioning, and provide additional services. The focus is on practical needs so that other immediate stressors, such as finding a safe place or communication with relatives, do not exacerbate trauma from the event itself.

The study of psychological reactions to terrorism is ongoing. The past decade has witnessed small steps in understanding its similarity to other traumatic events, such as natural disasters, and how it differs. Owing to their uncertain and prolonged nature, the impact on communities is profound.

If you or a loved one is currently seeking recovery from a mental health disorder, the 24/7 Recovery Helpline is available to help you every step of the way. Our representatives are committed to connecting you with the best treatment plans and aftercare programs that best suit your individual needs. Help is just a phone call away. Call us at 855-441-4405.

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