Feature

Since Sept. 11, psychologists have been examining the impact of that day's terrorist events on many different groups of Americans. At an APA Annual Convention session, "The disproportionate impact of Sept. 11," mental health experts will report that some Americans have been especially hard-hit, while others have been more resilient than many people anticipated.

One such group is older Americans. "It's easy to think of older adults as overly vulnerable," says psychologist and session presenter Antonette Zeiss, PhD, who works with seniors at the Palo Alto, Calif., Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). However, she says, research on previous natural disasters shows that older adults are highly resilient in the face of traumatic events: They are very unlikely to develop post-traumatic stress or other disorders after a disaster.

That's not to say that they were completely unaffected by Sept. 11. "Research suggests, while older adults are not vulnerable to the traumatic impact of the event, they are vulnerable to becoming more depressed and--if they have cognitive difficulties--more confused if the disaster led to a dramatic disruption of day-to-day routines," explains Zeiss.

Meanwhile, many people underestimated the impact the terrorist attacks had on people with disabilities. The daily lives and routines of many individuals with disabilities were disrupted, not only on Sept. 11, but for weeks after the attacks, as basic services--such as transportation and electricity--were halted, and the very air people breathed was impure. "It's obviously very scary for people who use ventilators or who rely upon electric wheelchairs," says psychologist and presenter Linda Mona, PhD, of the Long Beach VA.

In addition, of course, the attacks added many people to the ranks of those with disabilities. The result has been that people with disabilities "have become more apparent to a wider population," says Mona.

Psychologists are also studying employees. Since workplaces were the targets of the Sept. 11 attacks, psychologists are investigating whether the attacks and continued threats are causing employees to feel distressed. Based on research from previous technological and natural disasters such as the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, members of APA's Task Force on Workplace Violence hypothesize that employees have been affected, although the degree to which they've been hurt remains unknown.

For sure, most employees' sense of safety and security at work has been rattled, particularly for those in New York and Washington, D.C., says task force member and session presenter Julian Barling, PhD. Previous disaster research points out that some of the best ways to combat such uncertainty and stress following a disaster are through support systems--whether it's emotional support from one's family or more practical forms of support, such as the New York City companies that helped their displaced employees find new jobs or housing. Other interventions--such as critical incident stress debriefing--need more research, says Barling. "We're finding that a lot of the knowledge we thought we had may not be relevant to the so-called new environment," he explains.

More research is also needed on trauma's impact on children--an area still in its infancy relative to work with adults, says session presenter Robin Gurwitch, PhD, of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. "Signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress may be misunderstood or underestimated by caring adults, leaving many children in need of services without appropriate interventions," Gurwitch says.

Moreover, since many children watched the terrorist events unfold on television, "the impact of this must certainly be considered when assessing service delivery and interventions with children," she explains, noting that research conducted after the Oklahoma City bombing indicates that children who watched a lot of television coverage of the bombing were more likely to report post-traumatic stress symptoms than those who saw little television coverage.

Other psychologists at the session will take a different approach to the impact of Sept. 11. Ethel Tobach, PhD, will caution psychologists about restraints on freedom that have resulted from the attacks. When comparing the federal government's response to earlier events, such as the Oklahoma City bombing, Tobach says there are troubling differences, including that the federal government passed the Patriot Act.

"As psychologists, we find the idea of 'agency' very important," she explains. "People have to feel they have the [power] to act to ameliorate their life conditions by joining with others. All of that is being threatened by the Patriot Act."

Meanwhile, presenter Carl Bell, MD, a professor of psychiatry and public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, will talk about Sept. 11 through the lens of America's history of racism. "There may be some lessons that Americans can learn [about] how African Americans have coped with the terrorism we've faced for the last 400 years," he says. "This is a wonderful opportunity for this country to study the impact of terrorism, to study the impact of racism, to study the resilience of African Americans and people in other countries."

The session will be chaired by Meg Bond, PhD, and is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 24, 1-2:50 p.m.

--D. SMITH

To register, to to the APA Convention Web site.