Running Commentary

Americans have responded to the events of Sept. 11 by generously giving time, resources and expertise to the recovery effort. In the Monitor, you have read about the work of psychologists across the country who have utilized their skills to respond to the national crisis. While most psychologists have not traveled to disaster sites or had their research garner front-page headlines, many are making a significant impact by incorporating these events into their ongoing professional activities.

Here are just a few stories about individual psychologists and graduate students who, without fanfare, are applying their expertise to the local and national response.

Simply being there

On Sept. 11, Beth Todd-Bazemore, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of South Dakota, was consulting at the Winnebago reservation in northeastern Nebraska. When the young people she was working with heard the news of the attacks, they were understandably alarmed. The danger seemed imminent when Air Force One, accompanied by fighter jets, flew directly overhead, carrying President Bush to Omaha. Using her clinical skills, Todd-Bazemore defused the situation by processing the young people's fears and addressing the sense of impending doom the attacks provoked. Simply by being there, she calmed a situation of escalating panic.

In Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23, Daniel Dodgen, PhD, of APA's Public Policy Office, joined other Pentagon volunteers to create a forum for discussing the community's mental health needs. By the end of October, the group had met four times and had grown to include representatives of the military, the Red Cross, local agencies and local mental health guilds. The Metropolitan Washington Mental Health Community Response Coalition continues meeting to this day and has developed a "lessons learned" document to prepare for possible future events.

In the realm of psychological research, Jennie Noll, PhD, and Penny Trickett, PhD, are looking at data they gathered before Sept. 11 to better understand childhood trauma. Noll and Trickett are co-investigators on a longitudinal study of girls from the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area who were victims of sexual abuse. After Sept. 11, they began to wonder how these events would affect this population. To examine how characteristics of childhood trauma differentially affect reactions to terrorism, their next round of data collection will add questions on exposure to the terrorist events and immediate reactions. These data will make a unique contribution to our understanding of how prior functioning and exposure to trauma interact with new traumatic events.

Students' contributions

Chris Wallace and Christina Wesley, predoctoral interns at Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center in Los Angeles, responded when a local middle school needed help with problems involving discrimination against students of Middle Eastern descent. Quickly recognizing that working only with the Middle Eastern students was essentially stigmatizing the victims, Wallace and Wesley developed a presentation on diversity and tolerance for the school--one of the most diverse in Los Angeles--that was so popular that nearly every classroom in the school participated. At times, there was not enough space in the classrooms to contain students and teachers from neighboring classes who wanted to attend.

Meanwhile, at Princeton University, John Drummond, a doctoral candidate in social psychology and a major in the U.S. Air Force, began working with John Darley, PhD, to study retaliatory violence and how extremist groups come to justify the use of violence. After Sept. 11, Drummond and Darley began to develop research questions regarding "noncombatancy," the question of how certain groups come to view civilians as combatants. Drummond is also working with Darley to develop research on how people's level of identification with the aggressor affects their judgment concerning justification for that aggression, and how information about the aggressive act mediates their moral view of the act. The potential significance of this research is tremendous.

These stories represent a fraction of what psychologists are doing to help our nation respond to Sept. 11, but they all illustrate the same point: Psychologists and psychology graduate students are making a significant contribution to the healing of our nation and to understanding the causes and the impact of terrorism.