Daniel Dodgen, PhD, is no stranger to crisis. Trained in trauma and disaster response, he worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in responding to the Los Angeles riots in 1992 and was part of the local Red Cross response to the Northridge earthquake in southern California in 1994. The following year, he was part of the joint APARed Cross effort to establish a first-ever national mental health hotline following the Oklahoma City bombing.
But none of these experiences could have prepared Dodgen for the enormity of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, or for the tremendous need for mental health services that the tragedies prompted.
"When news of the attacks was first announced, I was in shock, like everyone else," remembered Dodgen, a clinical psychologist who works as a senior legislative and federal affairs officer in APA's Public Policy Office. Soon, however, he realized that his training and experience might be of help, and he volunteered his services with the Red Cross chapter working at the Pentagon.
He immediately began working 4 p.m.-to-midnight shifts, six days a week. In the first days following the attacks, he did whatever rescue workers needed from moment to moment, from distributing food and other supplies to offering counseling.
"Crisis counseling, especially in a disaster, is very different from regular psychotherapy," Dodgen observed. "One of the first priorities is simply to let people know that their reactions are normal." But, he emphasized, it's also important--especially in working with rescuers--to resist the urge to probe too deeply into people's emotional reactions to disaster. "Rescue workers can't start reflecting on their own feelings when they need to go back to recovering bodies in five minutes," he said.
In the weeks following the attacks, Dodgen's focus shifted from working with emergency personnel at the crash site to offering support off-site to Department of Defense workers, airline employees and families of victims.
"The purpose is to give people a chance to talk about their reactions to the event and how they're coping, and to help them develop coping strategies so they can exert some control over their emotional, cognitive, physiological and behavioral responses," Dodgen explained.
Even though removed from the stresses of the crash site during the debriefings, he said, he found it moving to work with bereaved families and others affected by the tragedy.
"These people have a lot of questions that nobody can answer satisfactorily," he said. "They want to know why this happened, whether there was anything they could have done to prevent it, and whether there was anything they could have done to help a loved one or a coworker remain safe, if they had only reacted more quickly."
Dodgen admits that he and other mental health professionals were also overwhelmed, at times, by the magnitude of the destruction and the loss of life.
"We're not exempt just because we're trained to do crisis intervention," he said. "It's a challenge to put aside your own feelings of shock and outrage, take care of yourself and maintain the focus needed to do your specific task."
Making the work even more difficult, within days after beginning work at the Pentagon, Dodgen--like many others there--was scarcely able to talk, his throat hoarse from overwork and exposure to the smoke, soot and pulverized concrete in the air.
Despite its emotional and physical toll, said Dodgen, the Pentagon work has been rewarding. "If I can help one person at the Pentagon to do his job well or begin to re-establish their own coping abilities, then I am successful," he said. "I'm tired, but I'd step in to help again in a second."