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Experts Consider Psychological Impact of Terror Attacks - 2001-09-23

Rescuers sifting through the rubble of the World Trade Center day and night need help in dealing with the devastation caused by the September 11 terrorist attack. So do New Yorkers who, one way or another, continue to live with the horrific assault on the city's twin towers. Experts say it will take Americans a long time to recover their sense of security.

Before the terrorist attack obliterated the heart of New York City's financial district, and another hijacked jetliner destroyed a side of the Pentagon an hour later near Washington, Charles Figley was going about his business as a professor of social work at Florida State University.

After the attacks, Mr. Figley received a call to come to New York. He did, and is now located one block from so-called ground zero, the place where the World Trade Center's two towers once stood.

In an office, Professor Figley receives a steady stream of emergency workers looking for on site counseling. He said, "The typical things are nervousness, anxiety, fear that something like this will happen again and sadness that someone that they knew died or was badly injured. But it's mostly stabilization, and educating them about the ways stress works and ways they can best manage the stress and what they can look forward to, which is things may get a little worse now with their emotions but, for the most part, everyone is going to respond and be resilient; may even be stronger as a result of it."

As long as there's a job to be done at "ground zero" in New York and at the Pentagon, rescuers can refocus their attention on their work.

But experts say Americans are likely to remain psychologically affected by the terrorist assaults for awhile.

Charles Figley of Florida State University says it's natural that the emotional impact will be long lasting. During this period, he says, most Americans, whether they know it or not, are asking themselves a series of questions. "What happened," he asked? What happened in this situation? Why did it happen? Why did I act the way I did when I first knew about this in the days and maybe even weeks following it? So we're really in a shock phase right now."

Professor Figley says it's not unusual for people everywhere to feel fearful, jumpy, anxious, reluctant to go about their business or scared to fly. They are also likely to have concerns about being able to protect themselves and their loved ones from future harm. "Those questions," he said, "whether they are obvious to an individual or not, when they are answered, our life is pretty much on keel and we can move forward. But most often, it is a negotiation that we have internally with ourselves in which we feel that we have a sufficient answer for all of them. And, as a result, we have more confidence in being able to do all the things that heretofore we were fearful of doing."

For now, the short-term need is in New York City. Social worker Kim Walton of Indianapolis counsels children in crisis, and she's going to New York as part of the National Organization of Victims Assistance. Ms. Walton acknowledges she has a big job ahead of her in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. She said, "The overall sense of security for us in America who haven't experienced it [terrorism] on a regular basis like other areas of the world, certainly our level of security both as adults and as children - is going to be significantly different. And we're not going to go back to what we consider normal for quite some time, if ever."

Ms. Walton says it's important to allow children everywhere to express their grief through healthy outlets, such as drawing and play. Otherwise, unexpressed emotions can lead to unhealthy conditions, including depression and rage.