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Ten Years Later: How 9/11 Changed Our Nation

Health_0911_image1The morning of September 11, 2001 is forever seared into our nation's collective consciousness. Horrific loss of life, massive destruction of landmarks, and infiltration of our air travel system rocked our very foundation, shattering any sense of security we may have had.

The deadly terrorist attacks changed the way we board airplanes and ignited furious debate over race and religion, and how our country would respond to the assault on our own soil. In the 10 years that have passed, has the experience changed who we are as a nation?

"On some fundamental level, the terrorism worked on us."

Several themes have emerged from the discussion of the events surrounding 9/11, says clinical psychologist Dr. John Duffy.

"The intensity of the trauma of that fateful day has, of course, dissipated over time. As a culture, though, we have changed. Our discourse is different, tighter, and more anxious. Our economy has us anxious, and many of us tie that to the money and energy spent on the wars in the wake of 9/11. We worry more. We take off our shoes at the airport. Many of our children pass through metal detectors on their way into school. We know that all of this is fallout from terrorism. We recognize, on some fundamental level, that the terrorism worked on us. We are, to a great extent, still afraid.

"A great deal of my work involves teenagers, many of whom were just beginning their school years on 9/11/01. They are aware of the dangers, the world players, and so on. But curiously, to a teen, they do not seem afraid. This, I think, is a hopeful sign."

"There is a new normal."

As we honor the fallen on the 10th anniversary, Dr. Duffy notes that our healing has a long way to go. "We will share appropriate moments of silence. Ten years ago, after all, we were all, suddenly and collectively, shattered. It's taking time to put the pieces back together. There is a new normal, but it's a more fear-based normal, far less comfortable, far more politically contentious. The day is already a subject of history, but it will be some time before we can truly put the post-traumatic stress of the day behind us as a nation."

"There is reason to believe that prolonged exposure to video imagery of violence and destruction may raise anxiety and distress levels ..."

Dr. Michael Brodsky, medical director of Bridges to Recovery, a behavioral health program for adults with psychiatric disorders, believes that intense media exposure may have heightened the psychological trauma.

"A 2002 Duke study found that the number of hours spent watching television coverage of the attacks was highly correlated to the levels of PTSD symptoms," he said. "A second study by researchers at New York University found that adults who watched 12 or more hours of coverage of the one-year anniversary of September 11th were 3.4 times more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD than adults with less television exposure.

"There has been controversy over whether television viewing can itself induce PTSD as the official psychiatric definition of PTSD does not include television as a source of traumatic exposure. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that prolonged exposure to video imagery of violence and destruction may raise anxiety and distress levels in vulnerable persons."

"It might be prudent to limit the amount of time spent watching violent imagery or 24-hour news channels ..."

Dr. Brodsky has many concerns about the effect constant media exposure has on viewers. 2011 has been a year full of natural disasters, he writes, pointing to the Japanese tsunami and the tornado in Joplin, Missouri. "And, we have seen the imagery and impact of man-made ones, including the terror attacks in Norway and the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, among others. No doubt there will be more tragedies before the year is out.

"Given what we are learning about the indirect effects of mass trauma, it might be prudent to limit the amount of time spent watching violent imagery or 24-hour news channels; to seek out support from friends and trusted confidants; to be especially sensitive to the fears of children, and to monitor their exposure to various news sources; and to seek out professional help when emotional symptoms become overwhelming."

"The 10th anniversary of 9/11 arrived much sooner than expected..."

Health_0911_image2A decade doesn't seem like a decade when it's still so raw. That's how many grieving people feel, says psychologist Dr. Deborah Serani. "It's even harder when the word 'decade' is used. In 2001, first responders and survivors of 9/11 moved through a 'direct trauma,' which has a more profound and
longer-lasting effect than the 'secondary trauma' of the general public.

"Adding further to direct trauma, is the fact that many cannot grieve at their own rate and pace because there's always some reminder of 9/11 on television, radio, newspapers, the bus stop, or water cooler. Grieving needs to be a private experience. In the textures of those quiet places, we find ways to mourn the death of those we love. It appears that the 9/11 families and first responders I work with cannot find that place of stillness to set their loved ones to rest ... or relieve the anguish in their hearts."

On Bin Laden's death, many "expressed a sense of closure," but to others, it meant "very little consolation."

Dr. Serani, who works directly with New York first responders and family members, says the death of Bin Laden has touched the lives of first responders quite differently. "Many were elated and expressed a sense of closure hearing the news. Others, though, shared that it meant very little consolation, since
nothing could bring their loved ones back -- or stop the horrifying images that have been burned in their minds.

"What I've seen in my work with first responders, as well as with survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is that trauma leaves an indelible mark that is quite unique and personal. It's an experience that cannot be compared or measured from one person to another."

"Things can never be the same."

Psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Bober councils both veterans and active military personnel and has extensive experience with PTSD. "Although we have healed somewhat from the events of that day, things can never be the same. Just as a deep wound heals, scar tissue remains and this may manifest itself psychologically as difficulty trusting others and anxiety about the future."

"The price of complacency is too high."

"So many rejoiced around the world as the death of Osama Bin Laden was announced, but it only provided us with a fleeting sense of justice and perhaps vengeance," says Dr. Bober. "Yet many feel uneasy and nervous, as we are surrounded by constant reminders in our communities that things have changed, such as increased security measures, fears about traveling, and the realization that the price of complacency is too high."

Sources: Dr. John Duffy, clinical psychologist and author of "The Available Parent"; Dr. Michael Brodsky, psychiatrist and medical director of Bridges to Recovery; Dr. Deborah Serani, psychologist and author of "Living with Depression"; Dr. Daniel Bober, psychiatrist and founder of Psychiatric Consultants of Florida

Image: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license via UpstateNYer

Ann Pietrangelo is the author of "No More Secs! Living, Laughing & Loving Despite Multiple Sclerosis," She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and writes for sites around the web.

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