9/11/2001: How The Pain Stays With Generations

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Check out We Shall Never Forget poem by Alan W Jankowski: https://www.stjamesplantation.com/coastal-community/911-we-remember/

Do you remember where you were when the terrorist attacks happened on September 11, 2001? The attacks were the worst acts of terrorism on American soil to date. Over 60% of Americans watched the attacks occur on live television or saw them replayed repeatedly in the following days, weeks, and even years after the attacks. As the anniversary of the tragic events is approaching, there is one question some people have: How has this event affected children who have grown up in a post 9/11 society? To meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, an individual must have been directly exposed to a traumatic event (assault, violence, accidental injury). Direct exposure can mean that an individual (or their loved one) was at or near the site of the event that took place. So those who were directly exposed to trauma like 9/11 might also suffer from associated physical and mental health problems.

People who are geographically distant from “Ground Zero” might have been impacted as well. Specifically, children and youth across America and many lived far from the actual attacks and were too young to have experienced or seen the attacks as they occurred. As we see in today’s age of technology, media reporting can cause trauma exposure. In the following weeks of the 9/11 attacks, media-based exposure was associated with psychological distress, including acute stress, post-traumatic stress, and ongoing fears and worries about future terrorist acts. Measurable impact was found on mental and physical health (like increased risk of heart disease). The findings closely resembled research led by psychologist William Schlenger that found Americans who reported watching more hours of 9/11 coverage on the immediate aftermath of 9/11 were more likely to report symptoms that resembled PTSD. Work conducted by Michael W. Otto also found that more hours of 9/11 related television watching were associated with higher post-traumatic stress symptoms in children under ten the first five years following the attacks. 

Children who reported longer-term distress symptoms is relatively low, but children whose parents had low coping abilities or themselves had learning disabilities or prior mental health problems tend to report higher distress. For example, Virginia Gil-Rivas said that most American adolescents exposed to 9/11 only through the media were found to have post-traumatic distress symptoms decrease at the one-year mark. The study also showed that parental coping abilities and the availability of parental discussion regarding the attacks made a difference. There has been no study on the long-term effects of 9/11 on children’s development and adjustment for those who lived through 9/11 vs. those who did not, since almost every American child is or was exposed to images of the attacks at some point in time. 

Nineteen years later, a better question is: How does the collective trauma of 9/11 affect people today? A study and surveys were done by E. Alison Holman, Dana Rose Garfin, and Roxane Cohen Silver regarding a sample from people who lived in New York and the Boston metropolitan area for comparison on direct and media-based exposure to the 9/11 attacks and the Boston Marathon bombing. Of course, those who lived in New York or Boston were more likely to meet the criteria for “trauma exposure” found that people who experienced direct exposure prior to collective trauma (9/11, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Hurricane Sandy) reported higher acute stress symptoms after the Boston Marathon bombing. Greater amounts of media-based live exposure (watched or listened to the event as it occurred on live television, radio, or online streaming) to prior collective trauma were associated with higher acute stress symptoms after the Boston bombing. So the greater direct and media-based exposure to previous collective trauma was linked with greater acute stress responses (anxiety, nightmares, issues concentrating) after a subsequent event.

In other words, the impact on children most likely extends beyond the physical and mental health effects of exposure, no matter if it was direct or media-based. Every tragic event that people witness, even through the media, likely has an impact. People should stay informed but limit repeated exposure to disturbing images that can negatively affect psychological and physical health outcomes.

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