International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

President's Message

Posted 1 January 2002 in StressPoints by John Briere

The plane moves across a million television screens, appearing like any other plane as it approaches the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Planes look like that, in the air. They fly over buildings, and then they land. People get off and go about their business.

But, of course, that isn't what happened-not for that plane, or the next. Or the next. Or the next. Or for the people on the ground in New York City, Washington, DC, and in a meadow outside of Pittsburgh.

The most accurate estimate to date is that more than 3,000 people died on September 11, 2001, or soon thereafter. It was the largest disaster in American history-even worse, an intentional act of aggression. As such, "9/11" joins a growing list of mass atrocities, taking its place alongside the holocaust and Rwanda.

Violence of this magnitude is far more recognized in some world cultures than in others. For America, it was a wake-up call to the reality of terrorism and, although not always articulated as such, to the extent of antipathy some cultures bear toward the United States. In response to this monstrous act, America has, in some ways, joined the international community, both in a greater sense of vulnerability and in a growing awareness of the fragility of peace.

It is from this context that I write this first President's Message of 2002. ISTSS was, and is, a central player in the world's response to September 11. ISTSS members, both those already in New York and Washington, DC, and the many who traveled there to help, were involved at all levels. They assisted government with policy, planning and logistics. They responded to the media, trained and supervised clinical responders, and did what they could at ground zero to help survivors and emergency responders cope with the unimaginable. In a matter of hours, the arcane area (to some) of psychological trauma became a national preoccupation. Whether in a staging area for exhausted fire fighters or in helping families whose loved ones did not arrive in Los Angeles or San Francisco, members joined thousands of mental health workers, medical practitioners, clergy and others to do what could be done, to help in any way possible.

ISTSS's involvement is not finished, of course. Much of the pain associated with the terrorist attacks continues unabated, or is just starting to emerge in the form of PTSD and other anxiety disorders, depression, and substance abuse in our clinics and emergency rooms. As a result, the mental health needs associated with September 11 are far from being met. Clinical scientists are working to determine the most effective interventions for victims of mass psychological trauma, and clinicians, with greater urgency than ever before, are focusing on bereavement issues (as opposed to posttraumatic stress alone). Resources are being developed and placed on the Internet and in other media so that clinicians and affected individuals can access accurate information regarding mass trauma and its effects.

Besides these endeavors, there is another way we can help. It is almost a given that trauma tends to narrow the perspective of those who survive it, and, in cases of interpersonal victimization, it often fuels a desire for vengeance and further aggression. Leaders and the media are not immune to this phenomenon. In fact, they may exacerbate it as they seek to articulate the horror and devastation of their constituencies. Although such reactions are entirely understandable, they rarely contribute to meaningful solutions. At their worst, they may encourage tribalism and a version of group identity that undercuts, rather than assists, recovery and resolution. As trauma specialists, we understand the rage that comes from grief, violation, and exposure to unbridled viciousness. We all are humans as well as leaders, and each of us has our own reactions to such horrible events. But we also know that violence rarely solves matters that arise from violence. Part of our role as trauma experts may be to assist in the search for constructive solutions, in articulating a bigger picture that transcends "us" vs. "them," racism or the killing of innocent people in foreign lands. This does not in any way mean that we should overlook or forgive the killing of thousands of human beings. But it may mean that we can use our specialized knowledge to eschew vengeance as a solution. I don't know exactly how we can do that, but I do think, whatever the answers may be, they will reside in thought, understanding and measured action-not in rage or xenophobia.

There are other issues that should appear in a president's message, and they will in future issues. ISTSS has been extremely well-served over the last year by its most recent president, Bonnie Green, and the 2000-2001 board of directors. Danny Kaloupek and the Finance Committee have done an extraordinary job in returning ISTSS to the black-or at least dark gray. The deficits accrued in recent years are virtually erased. We have made initial steps toward improving communication and cooperation among traumatic stress societies worldwide. And Conference Chair Eve Carlson is working to develop an exceptional 2002 annual meeting in Baltimore, focused both on the specific topic of mass trauma and the more general area of complex psychological trauma.

That's for next time. This time, let me wish you a happy and productive New Year, and, to those who lost a friend, colleague or loved one in these recent events, please accept my heartfelt condolences. Finally, thank you for all that you've done, no matter how or where you did it, whether in your work with a particular client whose memories were activated by the terrorist attacks, in your research on trauma and its effects, or in the more direct services you provided to the people of September 11.