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College of Human Ecology

9/11 brings changes in trauma counseling

Monday, August 29, 2011

As the nation steps back to remember the 10-year anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, and the many lives lost and altered, mental health professionals step back to analyze lessons in trauma counseling that stemmed from not only that day, but traumatic events at all levels.

Briana Goff, a professor in the School of Family Studies and Human Services who studies post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic stress, said that while the mental health model in use morphed after 9/11, tactics used then to help trauma victims are still used today.

Counseling mixed with support

"It started out as debriefing for providers, emergency personnel, police and people who witnessed the event immediately after the fact," Goff said. "We identify people who are at risk for long-term mental health issues. It's a support service, different than traditional mental health service in an office."

After 9/11, Goff said mental health workers realized they needed more of these kinds of interventions, which, aside from identifying trauma victims for traditional mental health treatment, give individuals an outlet to talk about their experience and find support.

"The model is different now in that it focuses on reducing the stigma of mental health trauma, normalizing what they are feeling and providing service to the masses," Goff said.

Term: psychological first aid

The mental health model used now at disasters or high-stress events is known as psychological first aid, called so because of its focus on immediate support, not necessarily on immediate counseling. Sometimes this support is needed further away than ground zero itself. Goff said secondary trauma can also affect those who were not directly involved in a traumatic situation, especially one as horrific as 9/11. This can include people who watched events unfold live on TV.

"People have very different memories of watching 9/11 events on TV -- seeing people falling or jumping from windows, others running terrified. It's very possible they were affected just by watching these types of terrifying scenes," she said.

Pinpoint secondary trauma

Identifying people suffering from secondary trauma is the primary responsibility of some disaster workers, said Jacque Gibbons, professor of social work who works with the American Red Cross' mental health team in identifying disaster survivors for mental health treatment.

"We monitor and evaluate how disaster response staff are dealing with their experience, which is part of secondary trauma that may befall the helpers in these situations," Gibbons said. "Most, if not all, survivors of a disaster have some trauma. The key issue is really how they choose to deal with the trauma. If they get back into a stable routine and are able to move forward with local emotional support, they most likely will be OK."

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This article was posted on Monday, August 29, 2011, and is filed under College News, Family Studies & Human Services.