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The American Psyche, Post-9/11

How 9/11 Changed Us

WebMD Feature

When terrorist-controlled airliners destroyed the World Trade Center's twin towers and crashed into the Pentagon, they not only shattered the lives of thousands of people directly in the line of fire. They also attacked America's psyche. Today, people from sea to shining sea are still dealing with the emotional repercussions of the events of Sept.11, 2001.

As with the assassination of President Kennedy, nearly all Americans will forever recall where they were when the jets slammed into the towers, and how they sat transfixed, watching the horrific televised images of the unprecedented carnage. But long after the disturbing news reports faded from TV screens, some Americans are still searching for a return to psychological balance.

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According to mental health experts, many men and women have shown an amazing resilience since 9/11, often buoyed by feelings of patriotism and national pride, sometimes by just the passage of time. Although national surveys reported common problems like sleeping difficulties, trouble concentrating, and feelings of vulnerability in the weeks and months after the attacks, those symptoms have gradually subsided in many individuals. Others, however, still remain anxious and fearful as they continue to cope with the lingering psychological effects of the terrorist attacks -- whether they live near Ground Zero or thousands of miles away.

Identifying PTSD

The presence of protracted psychiatric symptoms should not be surprising since, as psychologist William E. Schlenger, PhD, says, the 9/11 attacks "represent an unprecedented exposure to trauma" within the borders of the U.S.

In a study at North Carolina's Research Triangle Institute (RTI), published in the August 2002 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, Schlenger and colleagues reported that 11% of the population of metropolitan New York developed probable posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), characterized by nightmares, flashbacks, and other anxiety symptoms.

"Extrapolating from existing studies of PTSD, 30-50% of cases will turn out to be chronic -- and in at least some of those cases, it will probably be a lifelong disorder," says Schlenger, director of RTI's Center for Risk Behavior and Mental Health Research.

While people in New York City and Washington have been particularly susceptible to the psychological impact of 9/11, men and women in every part of the U.S. have been affected as well. Not only did almost everyone view the televised collapse of the World Trade Center towers, but according to the RTI researchers, a startling 10 million adults in the U.S. had a friend, family member, or co-worker killed or injured in the attacks.

"Having a relative's or close friend's physical well-being challenged is considered a traumatic event sufficient for the development of PTSD," says Juesta M. Caddell, PhD, senior research clinical psychologist and a co-author of the RTI study. The RTI research found a 4% prevalence of probable PTSD in the country as a whole, translating into many millions of cases away from New York City and the nation's capital.

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