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Mental Health Counselors Work With Grieving NASA Workers - 2003-02-04

In the wake of the Columbia shuttle disaster, the U.S. space agency, NASA, must continue to operate, even as its employees struggle to deal with overwhelming emotions surrounding the accident. At the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, mental health professionals have been called in to counsel and assist staffers in the grieving process.

It was here at the Kennedy Space Center, where the seven astronauts who died in the Columbia disaster spent their last moments on earth. And it was here that the shuttle itself was equipped and prepared for launch. In addition to their grief, those who toil at the Kennedy Space Center feel an added burden, that of responsibility, wondering if they could have prevented the tragedy.

Patti Bell is one of several psychologists who have been reaching out to NASA employees and contract workers at the space center.

"We have teams that are going out into different spots, the cafeterias, the training auditorium, places where people congregate," she said. "We find that [if counseling is offered] on a more informal basis, people are more likely to open up."

Ms. Bell says her goal is to make people realize that their feelings of loss and grief are 'normal after an abnormal event.' She says the overall emotional state at the Kennedy Space Center is about what one would expect after a wrenching tragedy. "Everyone is experiencing a great sense of loss. We are all knit together like a family out here," she said. "There are different degrees in the severity of [the feeling of] loss, sadness, emptiness, and any of the emotional symptoms that go with grieving."

NASA spokesman George Diller says those who worked on the Columbia launch are now asking themselves if there was anything they could have done differently that might have prevented the shuttle's loss. He says, even though the exact cause of the accident is not known, feelings of personal responsibility for the tragedy are inescapable.

"Everything that the employees that work on the shuttle do, in their minds, is something that could mean life or death for a crewmember," he said. "Everyone knows that this is a very unforgiving business. A small mistake can have catastrophic consequences, and so every employee knows that they have a lot of self-responsibility, because they do not want to feel they in any way contributed to something that led to [the loss of] the life of an astronaut."

Mr. Diller says many staffers at the Kennedy Space Center are trying to focus on their jobs so as not to dwell on the shuttle accident. But, according to psychologist Patti Bell, attempting to lose oneself in one's work is not the best way to grapple with the aftermath of a traumatic event.

"I think, we have become a lot more aware that we need to process emotions as we do anything in life - and that they need to be addressed," she said.

Ms. Bell says, it may be weeks or even months before the full extent of the psychological effect of the Columbia disaster on NASA employees is known.