When discussing the tragedy that was September 11, 2001, many people speak of the people who died, who perished while working for Cantor Fitzgerald in the twin towers, who died on a plane that crashed into the twin towers or in a Pennsylvania field, the hundreds of firefighters who lost their lives, entire companies wiped out in one tragic instant. Many speak of the people who dove from the towers to their death because they were burning alive, or the people on the street who later would succumb to cancer deaths from the carcinogens released during the destruction that beautiful September day.
What many don’t speak of is the survivors — the ones who survived that day, but were directly involved, either able to escape the towers before the collapse, or those who witnessed the fallout in the New York City street as the towers crumbled. Many may consider them lucky. But they have suffered a particular type of emotional fallout that may be partly due to survivor guilt, a psychiatric condition in which one feels guilty for surviving a tragedy when others died. Even if they have escaped cancer now 15-years later, they are unlikely to be completely unscathed. In fact, a recent study shows that those survivors are surviving under painful circumstances.
Many are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a psychological disorder in which one has been through a terribly frightening or tortuous emotional or physical situation and felt helpless to change their situation. Many of these people in this population succumb to binge-drinking, an attempt to self-medicate the emotional pain of that day, but one that leads to significant relationship, emotional, physical and financial problems. Simply put, many victims are still paying the price of September 11, every day of their lives, and have been for the past 15 years.
Although approximately 3,000 people died that day, it is important to remember that approximately 17,000 people escaped. Longitudinal studies of the survivors show that those who were actually in the towers but survived, particularly those who suffered a physical injury, are the most likely to be dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and binge-drinking or alcoholism. People on the street who witnessed the fallout at close range are also more susceptible to these conditions, but not as much as the ones who actually were inside the towers and escaped. According to Medscape, the study, led by Lisa M. Gargano, PhD, MPH, Division of Epidemiology, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, World Trade Center Health Registry, showed that the most intense emotional fallout 15-years later were people who were actually inside the towers before they collapsed from the terrorist attack. The lead authors say the study will continue, but the statistics on the first 15 years show incredible suffering.
“These and other findings suggest that different experiences may impact people differently and substantiate the importance of continued mental health and substance use screening and treatment after a disaster. Long-term studies using structured diagnostic assessments are needed to assess the burden of disease, help plan treatment and monitor the progress of those affected.”
While treatment has been offered to survivors, many feel it has not been enough, as the emotional distress in the survivors does not seem to get better with time, which is a different finding from those who have suffered other traumatic events that are not on the grand scale that was the September 11 terrorist attack.
If anything is to be gleaned from the study, it may be that the United States, while honoring their dead, should concentrate on the conditions of their survivors just as much. Whether the survivor was an employee in the trade towers, a postal worker dropping mail of that day, or a police officer who survived, all seem to be battling major emotional trauma that does not get better with time and requires significant ongoing monitoring and treatment, something that not all survivors have received, either because they have refused treatment or not been offered it. Refusal of treatment is frequent among those who survive situations in which others have died, because they believe they may have no right to complain. Authors of the study say that particular belief has been the chief barrier to proper psychiatric care.
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