In communities across the country, psychologists are reaching out to foster healing in the aftermath of the attacks. Some are talking with churches and civic groups, promoting community action such as blood drives, charity drives and town hall meetings on coping with trauma. Others are discussing ways to counter stereotypes and cultural intolerance.
Many are offering support to schools, using materials developed by APA's Practice Directorate, members of the Disaster Response Network Advisory Committee and coordinators from APA's Public Education Campaign to talk with youth about the terrorist attacks. The materials (available at APA Practice) suggest steps for reaching out to schools, and provide a guide to conducting discussions with youth and resources on coping with traumatic events.
Here are a few brief snapshots of how psychologists and psychology students are offering help.
Emphasizing what's normal
In Myrtle Beach, S.C., clinical psychologist Monite Mills, PhD, drew from APA's materials to talk with her church's junior and senior high youth groups.
"One of the things that really came through was that the way the students found out about the attacks was mismanaged or not managed at all," Mills explained.
Most of the adolescents in the groups not only watched events unfold live on CNN, but watched the shocked reactions of their teachers. "Children saw how frightened adults were that day," she said. "Psychologists can provide much-needed follow-up for children who were overwhelmed by the TV images and the reactions of their teachers and parents. Our skills are needed everywhere in America right now."
Mills talked with the teens about their reactions to the attacks and what may happen in the future. She also emphasized that it's normal to not have the "perfect" empathic response to the attacks.
"Cognitively, it was such a confusing thing to see on television, that a lot of people have yet to process it, especially very young children," she said.
For other psychologists interested in volunteering with youth, Mills advises being prepared to listen, identifying potential referral sources in advance and closing with positive, concrete suggestions on what people can do next.
Psychologist Angela Toia, PhD, reached an even larger audience when she spoke about the range of emotions teens and their families are experiencing on the MTV show "Total Request Live" three days after the terrorist attacks. She also offered advice on what teens could do if they were worried about friends.
"The first thing is to reach out and to just sit with them and kind of let them talk to you," she said. "Not to interrupt them. Not to give them your own spin on what you think is going on. Just to really accept what they're saying and kind of validate it."
Action plan in place
Two years ago, Pauline Clansy, PhD, manager of psychological services at Houston Independent School District, and her colleagues developed a disaster-response plan in case of a disaster or community tragedy. On the morning of Sept. 11, the school district set that plan into action.
First, the school superintendent alerted all principles of the incidents and instructed them to make certain there were no unauthorized people on school grounds. During the next two hours, Clansy and psychologist Harriet Arvey, EdD, an assistant superintendent, helped the superintendent draft several more messages to teachers, school staff and parents encouraging them to assure students they were safe, to discuss what had happened and to protect any students whose ethnic backgrounds might cause them to be singled out.
Clansy also assisted in the development of print and Web resources for staff, students and parents. They included facts sheets about the Islamic faith, advice on helping children cope and a list of names of crisis-team members who were available to counsel troubled students and staff.
"We also provided staff with resources that could not only help them work through their own feelings, but help them address the feelings of their family and friends," she added.
Clansy appeared on a Houston television station's town hall meeting to discuss how the school system was meeting the psychological needs of students and was interviewed by local newspapers and radio stations on how to help children deal with the disaster.
In the weeks following the attacks, Clansy said there was an elevated level of anxiety among children, but the school district's public education efforts paid off.
The school staff was equipped to address student fears, and the district experienced only a few minor incidents of race-based harassment, Clansy said. School health and mental health professionals will continue to be vigilant for distressed staff or students.
In the long term, Clansy's staff will work with several community groups on a collaborative project to educate the community about being sensitive to issues of diversity. With the assistance of the Houston Psychological Association and the Houston Mental Health Association, the school district is also setting up a speakers bureau of mental health professionals available to meet with groups of students.
Universities reach out
In Oxford, Miss., psychology faculty and graduate students at the University of Mississippi have been active on campus and in the community to offer support in the wake of the tragedies. During the first week of October, supervised graduate students began talking with students in the local schools about the impact of the Sept. 11 events. The doctoral candidates planned to visit classrooms for four to six weeks to normalize students' reactions, discuss what actions young people can take, emphasize the value of diversity and answer any questions.
They also hosted two public meetings at a local library about two weeks after the attacks to provide psychoeducational information about the response to trauma.
"We're spreading ourselves all over to see where there's a need," explained William Paul Deal, PhD, who is supervising the students' community work with Tom Lombardo, PhD. "And if people in the community or university indicate that there is a need, then we'll try to figure out the best way to help."
Meanwhile, psychology teachers across the nation are adapting their curricula to respond to students' concerns and curiosity about roots and effects of the attacks:
At the University of Florida, Alan Stewart, PhD, has been applying the content of his undergraduate "Theories of Personality" class to the attacks. "I've been trying to discuss how different personality theorists would explain people's current reactions, and then correspondingly we've also started to examine what about personality theories might be able to explain the behavior of the people who crashed the planes into the buildings," he explained.
Stewart is also planning a supplemental lecture on Islamic perspectives on personality and has facilitated several class discussions about coping with the disaster. "A lot of people have been restless and looking for some way to do something," he said. "If I can channel some of the curiosity that those people have and broaden their multicultural appreciation, perhaps I can make the students in my class be ambassadors to others."
At the University of Miami, the psychology department will offer a new honors course to graduate and undergraduate students next semester titled "The Psychology of Traumatic and Stressful Life Events." The course will cover manmade disasters, family violence, personal violence, natural disasters and community violence.
At Ohio State University, classes for school psychology graduate students started a week after the attacks. Wendy Naumann, PhD, who directs the program's mental health component, scrapped her plans for the first night of class, and instead divided students into groups to discuss the mental health services needed by parents, children and teachers affected by the attacks. "It was important to incorporate this information right away in part because my students will be doing some field-based experiences in schools," Naumann explained. "Also, it is important that they look at their own mental health. We need to provide support for students from the get-go because their mental health does affect their professional skills."
Naumann not only facilitated discussion about the effects of the terrorist attacks on schools, but also pointed out that this is not the first time that children have experienced such trauma in the United States.
"While it's important that we acknowledge that this [attack] is a huge event, children in our country experience terrorist acts every day in their lives, particularly children who live in high-poverty urban areas," she explained to her students. "The skills that we would use for those children really are no different than the skills one would use to work with the people who have dealt with this trauma at the World Trade Center."
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