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Event Report: Ten Years Later: What Have We Learned? The Psychological Impact of 9/11

9 September 2011

Professor Cohen Silver’s presentation at the event Ten Years Later: What Have We Learned? The Psychological Impact of 9/11 held by Columbia University School of Psychiatry took a special focus on the national impact on 9/11. Her research has found that traumatic life events are stressful mainly because they are unpredictable and uncontrollable. Terrorism is a unique case of a traumatic life event because there is a faceless enemy with malevolent intent. Moreover, terrorism is inherently psychological in nature. It leads to prolonged threat that leads to fear for the populace in addition other political and social undertones.

9/11 was a unique collective trauma. It was the first large-scale successful terrorist attack on U.S. soil and it was the first that was witnessed live on our television screens. A huge number (50%) of the U.S. population witnessed a portion of the event live on television. The attacks highlighted our vulnerability to terrorism, and, because of all these features, there was psychological effect that was widespread throughout the country.

Her research showed that nationally the impact of the attack had spilled over the actual localities. Fears of future terrorism were relatively constant over three years after the attacks despite the fact that there was not another successful attack. The people that had elevated stress in the first two weeks (approximately 11% of the population) often experienced other physical ailments such as cardiovascular conditions later on.

Our behaviors have also changed; for example with the security procedures routinely in place when you take an airplane. World views have also been impacted so that in the U.S. we no longer have a sense of invulnerability. We accept on the whole this new reality. Polls show that the public is supportive of strong government response to terrorism when they perceive a high risk of future terrorism.

Negative social consequences included an aftermath of intolerance and prejudice towards individuals who appeared to share characteristics of the perpetrators. However, there have also been positive social consequences such as donations, civic engagement and an increase in patriotic actions. In a poll, a quarter of respondents reported an increase in feelings of admiration for other members of society.

It’s important to think of how the event affected children who have fewer memories of what life was like before September 9/11. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was even observed in children in the United Kingdom. In the Netherlands, data shows that the birth weight of babies in gestation during 9/11 was significantly lower than average. The jubilant scenes of young people after the killing of Osama bin Laden showed how tied-up the image of one individual was with the political worldview of many of the nation’s youth. The impact on children played out in their general beliefs about the world. They didn’t grow up believing that the US is invulnerable.

Cohen Silver’s findings showed that the media can educate the public and helpfully show what kinds of reactions are normal. However, the media is a double-edged sword. The presentation of repeated trauma can exacerbate and enlarge the geographic effect. Children often believed that the repeated images meant that the event was happening again and again.

The September 11 events had widespread effect on the country but it is not explained by exposure to the media only. Research showed that those with prior mental health difficulties were more likely to respond with heightened anxiety. Coping responses were very important in mitigating the affects of trauma. Ongoing stressors in the environment exacerbated the long term affect. 

Cohen Silver said that she and her colleagues have learnt several lessons as a result of their research. Firstly, the importance of being sensitive to the variability in people’s responses. Secondly, the danger of pathologizing ‘normal’ reactions to the event. Thirdly, recognizing that physical and mental health impact is likely to go beyond those directly exposed. There are many early indicators of mental health affects and there are cultural differences in response. Terrorism need not be as lethal as 9/11 to be affective. The DC snipers in 2002 had a similar impact in the short term. It is important to look beyond psychopathology to other health indicators. Finally, it was remarkable and reassuring to see the resilience shown by the American people in the wake of the attacks.

Alex Ingrams
SPSSI Policy Coordinator

Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin