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Terrorism and Disasters

ISTSS and other Web sites provide useful educational materials for clinicians and individuals to use in response to terror attacks around the world.

ISTSS offers Public Education Pamphlets that provide a readily accessible introduction to important trauma-related issues. The titles below will take you to the text.

Other trauma groups offer educational material:

Istanbul Center for Behavior Research and Therapy  

The UK Trauma Group Web site for links to trauma-related mental health services

National Center for PTSD

Research indicates a link between experiencing events like this terrorist attack and later mental health problems for many -- especially those who were injured, directly witnessed the death of others, or experienced the loss of family members and friends.

Rescue workers and caretakers of the injured and bereaved also may experience significant mental distress. Because terrorist attacks are deliberate, extremely violent, and involve huge numbers of casualties, those who suffer lasting psychological effects may number in the hundreds of thousands. Even those who only watch the events unfold on TV may experience strong psychological reactions.

People’s reactions to violent events with loss of life vary greatly and there are no correct or incorrect responses. All survivors, including witnesses to the events, even those who only watched it on TV, may experience fear, disbelief, and helplessness in the initial days after the event. Over time they may experience, among other things, feelings of horror, anxiety, depression, and even numbness (lack of feelings).

People may keep reliving images of the events (i.e., have “flashbacks”), have difficulty concentrating, not feel close to loved ones, and experience physical health problems. In the current tragedy, feeling of anger, blame, and rage may be common, along with feelings of irritability or even anger and violence against loved ones. Some may try to “calm down” by using alcohol or other substances. Children, like adults, may have difficulty sleeping or nightmares, and may avoid reminders of the events. They also may act out aspects of the events in their play, or avoid school, play, or being around other people.

There are no easy answers to these manifestations of suffering, but it can make a difference when people can help themselves by spending time with supportive friends and family sharing feelings and comforting each other.

Taking care of one’s self is also advised: getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and limiting use of alcohol, caffeine, and cigarettes. It may help to offer assistance to others as well. Children can be helped to understand that it is normal to be upset, to express any feelings and thoughts about the events, and to return to normal routines as soon as possible. While some people recover on their own, or with the mutual help of beloved ones, given sufficient time, not everyone does.

For this reason, some people may need professional help for posttraumatic stress reactions, depression, anger, or other trauma-related mental health problems. Research has shown that 20% or more of people exposed to traumatic events typically develop clinically significant psychological problems.

Many more will experience less severe effects. If significant distress continues for many months, becomes more, rather than less, severe over time, or interferes with one’s daily ability to function, professional help should be considered.