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World: Psychiatrist Advises On How To Come To Terms With Tragedy

  • Julie Moffett

An American psychiatrist, James Griffith, who spent time in Kosovo counseling survivors there, says the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States may help better prepare Americans for coping with loss in the future and help them understand other people and nations who have had to endure similar devastating tragedies in the past. Our health correspondent Julie Moffett interviewed Griffith and has this report.

Washington, 21 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- More than a week after the deadly terrorist attacks in the U.S., Americans are struggling both physically and emotionally to cope with a national tragedy and return to their daily lives.

James Griffith, professor of psychiatry and neurology at George Washington University Medical School in Washington, has had many years of experience in helping people deal with trauma, including time spent in Kosovo, where he counseled survivors.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Griffith, who is also a medical doctor, said the terrorist attacks are likely to take a toll on the nation's health and well-being. He says Americans were not prepared for such brutal attacks on their own soil, even though people in numerous other countries live constantly under such a threat.

He says it complicated matters that the attacks were unexpected, indiscriminate and massive. As a result, Griffith says many Americans -- as well as others around the world who witnessed the events -- suffered both physical and psychological symptoms of trauma. "After a traumatic event it is often hard to concentrate, hard to remember. Complex problem-solving can be difficult and people just find themselves very distractible. There is a wide range of feelings. But I guess the dominant one would be fear. Being preoccupied with the images seen on television or things that have been said. Fearful ideas, at least here in Washington, of what if this were to happen again."

Griffith suggests that people talk to close friends or family about the tragedy. He says talking about it helps people sort out their feelings of sadness, rage, fear, and vulnerability. Another therapeutic action is to take some kind of specific action that would lessen feelings of helplessness, he says -- something Americans have done in overwhelming numbers.

"I don't know whether all the blood that was given to the Red Cross was needed or not, but I have no doubt it was a very powerful step for many people to take. To stand in a long line and give blood, or give a check, or donate food. To gather in groups like the candlelight vigils or to take steps to ensure that Arab-Americans and Islamic people in the United States are protected and not unfairly blamed. You know, I think that any kind of assertive, active step -- rather than meeting adversity with passivity -- in the long run makes for good coping."

The good news, says Griffith, is that most people slowly begin to feel better as the days pass, and the majority recover without ever needing professional help. Griffith says it helps to get back to the important routines of one's life -- both the biological routines, as well as those that are family-related and social. He says he puts a particular emphasis on having people return to their normal sleeping schedules, eating patterns, and exercise.

Nonetheless, many Americans are finding it difficult to put the national tragedy aside and go on with life as normal. Diane Bennett, a housewife with two children who lives in the suburbs of Washington, told RFE/RL that the entire experience upset her greatly, even though she did not know anyone personally who had died or been injured in the attacks. "At first I couldn't believe it was happening," she said. "It was like a movie, a dream, or something completely unreal. I just kept thinking this couldn't possibly happen here."

Bennett says that even though more than a week has passed since the attacks, she still feels sad.

"Sometimes I get weepy," she admits. "It upset me because so many lives were lost. These weren't just military personnel who died, in fact, most of them were ordinary people going about their own business. Some were children. But I do think it has brought us closer together as a nation."

Griffith agrees, saying when people bond together as a family or a nation, it helps them heal faster. He drew some parallels between the time he spent working with traumatized families in Kosovo and the terrorist attacks, saying people in general typically reacted the same way under difficult conditions "with fear, anger, sadness, and disbelief." Griffith calls it a "universal part of being human."

Nonetheless, he says that there are some important differences that can be drawn between Kosovo and the terrorist attacks against the U.S.

"The culture [in Kosovo] has, for so many generations, endured so much trauma and so much loss that they have actually developed strong, stoic ways for dealing with loss and for protecting families. In that way, they probably have a certain advantage over America in that we've had a golden life. We've never been subjected on our soil to the kind of loss and destruction that many, many other cultures have."

Griffith says that if there were any good things that could possibly come out of the attacks, it would be an expansion of America's capacity for coping with loss in the future, and a better understanding of people and nations that have had to endure similar devastating tragedies.

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