A Columbia University study carried out six months after the September 11 attacks found a much higher than expected rate of serious mental health problems among New York public schoolchildren. The researchers say that one in ten, 75,000 children, have symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome or other disorders, such as major depression.
One young woman, Scarlet Taveras, and her high school principal, Ada Rosario Dolch, are coping and healing.
Scarlet Taveras was in class at the High School for Leadership and Public Service, just two blocks from the World Trade Center, when the first plane hit.
Sitting in her parents’ Bronx living room, she remembers the day.
“The whole building started shaking, and then we started seeing things hitting our school, like through the windows, we saw debris, like paper, on flames, and we were like, okay, what is happening," she said. "We could see things falling, but we couldn’t see from where. And then the second one hit, at like 9:06, and then we were looking up, and that’s when the lights turned off and then flicked back on, and then the room started trembling, and as we looked up, you could see flames coming from the World Trade Center. I just kept thinking that it would be worse, like more places were going to be bombed. Even now, if an airplane falls, I’m always like ‘it’s a terrorist attack. They’re like no, it’s not,’ and I’m ‘yes, it is.’”
Weaver: "So do you think you have a little post-traumatic stress?"
Taveras: “Yes, I do. I get angrier now, I get angrier more, I’m way more sensitive. Like the six-month anniversary, I was so pissed. Like, this is not an anniversary, there’s nothing happy about it, and what the hell are you celebrating?”
Scarlet’s parents, Jose and Ana Taveras, worry about her mood.
“Sometimes I talk to Scarlet about it, because she is really, really angry," her mother said. "About the psychological, I talk to her because I want her to go see someone, and she tells me she doesn’t want to do it – and I have confidence in God that everything is going to be okay, and it takes time, it takes time.”
"They have therapists in our school, but people don’t really go to them, because, one, we don’t know them," Scarlet said. "And some kids have trouble trusting them. And at the same time, it’s like you don’t want to talk about it, you just want to avoid it. But our teachers have done the greatest job, they speak to us about it because they know what we went through. Other people - I understand everybody went through horror that day, even people who don’t live in this country. But it’s different when you were actually down there with us.”
One of Scarlet’s teachers founded a knitting club after 9-11. More than 200 students joined.
“This - you could be angry, and start doing this, and it relaxes you," said Scarlet. "Most of the garments we make are for the homeless. It’s nice that everyone’s thinking of us and sending us all these things, but at the same time, we are fortunate, and we’re not that bad off as people think. And homeless people are, so we decided to give back to the people who do need help. And actually, we made a shawl for our principal because – the school is cold during the summer, with the air conditioner, and we wanted to give her something back that would make her feel nice.”
The principal at Scarlet’s school is Ada Rosario Dolch. On the morning of September 11, Mrs. Dolch allowed herself to think just once about her own sister, Wendy Wakeford, who worked near the top of the North Tower.
"Immediately I could do nothing other than say a prayer, which I did, and it was very simple: ‘Lord please take care of her, because I can’t, I’ve got to take care of my kids,’” she said.
Ada Dolch defied instructions to remain in the building, and led her 600 students and staff to safety in Battery Park, just before the first tower collapsed. Her sister died that day. Mrs. Dolch says she’s still suffering from memory loss and that many of her students also had symptoms even at the end of the school year.
"Students not wanting to be in class, but wanted to be in school. Class was too difficult for them, it meant they had to concentrate, they had to follow those rules," she said. "Being in school meant they could be with a group of people who understood their pain. There was a lot of I’m not sleeping. I cannot sleep. The many students who crossed my desk who we actually had to get assistance for. Some of the students needed real psychiatric assistance. And I think the key to it all has been sensitivity. It’s not a disease, it’s not a terrible thing, it’s something that we can work through, and there are avenues we can employ to move through that journey, and you can do it. In our school, for example, something that happened that was so dynamic was this art of recovery piece that our students worked on. It started in October, ended in April, and we had this magnificent exhibit. And it truly was an art of recovery.”
Back in Mrs. Dolch’s office, Scarlet shows a visitor the shawl the students knitted for their principal.
“That’s the one I told you about," said Scarlet. “I love it, it’s so beautiful, it will be here forever,” Mrs. Dolch said.
Mrs. Dolch seems to find the same kind of comfort nurturing her students that they found in knitting. And that’s also true when she talks to them about how to think about the first anniversary of the attack.
“It’s not about Ground Zero," said Mrs. Dolch, speaking to Scarlet and her friends. "What’s at Ground Zero? A big fat hole, an ugly hole! It’s not about here, but wouldn’t it be great if we could all go to Central Park, and gather and sing songs? I don’t know - I don’t think it’s about staying home and crying. I don’t think you need to do that anymore. It’s a day of remembrance, but I’d like you guys to also think about how strong you really are, how much you’ve accomplished, and where you’re headed. You made that very clear a few minutes ago: what was on your mind, college applications, where I’m gonna visit schools. That doesn’t speak of someone who’s back on September 12. You’ve come a long way, you’ve had other issues in your life, and maybe you can provide some answers for some other people now. You’ve understood the importance of doing for others. You’ve found other avenues. What seemed like the silliest thing, this knitting thing, was the most amazing thing in the world! You, too, what do you think about that, how therapeutic was that?”
“It was pretty good,” said William Flores.
“It was amazing! An amazing experience," said Mrs. Dolch. "Men! Men don’t crochet! Puerto Rican men? Never in a million years, oh my God, they should see you with needles! But what did you discover?" "It’s very peaceful,” he said.
“Yeah, it didn’t take anything away from you, it gave you some stuff," Mrs. Dolch "And then the ability to give some of it away, what a great feeling. It’s no surprise you’re in the school named Leadership and Public Service, because it is! I love you guys, stay well."