Without question, the country continues to process the events and experience of Sept. 11. We were a country initially not prepared to respond to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Organized evacuation plans for such attacks were few and far between. One needed only to witness the 30,000 Washington, D.C., office workers all trying to leave the city at the same time to know we were unprepared.
But perhaps the more relevant lack of preparedness from a psychologist's perspective is the degree to which the country seemed psychologically unprepared for the events of Sept. 11 and subsequent threats of bioterrorism. Neither the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center nor the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, as tragic as each event was, can be considered the same type and magnitude of the terrorism we are now coping with.
In the immediate aftermath of the events of Sept. 11, psychology's contribution to the country's response was--or should be--a source of great pride for every psychologist. The APA Disaster Response Network (DRN), in collaboration with the American Red Cross, was deployed to the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the Pennsylvania airplane crash site, as well as the Boston, Los Angeles and Washington Dulles airports. Also, a "marriage" of the DRN and the Practice Directorate's nationwide public education campaign coordinators network enabled a widespread community outreach to provide information to help the general public cope with the events, particularly how to respond to questions being asked by children. And, as our PracticeNet survey data are beginning to show, individual practitioners were clearly ready, willing and able to help their ongoing patients and clients in the wake of these horrific tragedies.
Since Sept. 11, psychologists have been helping people cope with loss, fear and uncertainty. They have been working to help replace prejudice with tolerance, while also being ready and available to treat post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health problems the research tells us tend to develop after major disasters.
There is, however, yet another level on which psychologists can be instrumental in helping people, if not the entire country, move forward. One of my colleagues who experienced firsthand the devastating attack of the World Trade Center captured it best: "How do I find meaning in my life after an experience like this?" asked Wall Street psychologist Marilyn Puder-York, PhD, in a conversation shortly after the attack (see November Monitor). To better understand how we psychologists might help with this traditionally existential question now made pressing by currents events, I sought out a part of my own past training as a clinician--Victor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning"--to guide me. The search for the book itself proved surprisingly difficult; it was six weeks back-ordered on Amazon.com.
Eventually, I found a copy that included a preface from the author himself written in 1992. In the preface, Frankl responded to a question about the best-selling success of his book. "I do not at all see in the best-seller status of my book an achievement and accomplishment on my part but rather an expression of the misery of our time," said Frankl. "If hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under the fingernails." Perhaps this comment is salient to the current run on his book.
More to the point, the section of the book on "logotherapy"--the term used by Frankl to refer to the interventions related to questions of meaning--offers some direction. He writes, "Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself. He may turn personal tragedy into triumph...and turn his predicament into human achievement."
As a part of the role psychologists must play following this tragedy, we must act as guides for the psychological journey of our country to find meaning in these events. We must use our knowledge, our research and our clinical skill to help turn personal tragedy into triumph and to turn our predicament into human achievement. It is both our opportunity and our responsibility. We must put aside our own personal and professional differences so that we do not shirk this responsibility or squander this opportunity. I am confident our profession will rise to the occasion. Many are counting on us.