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Helping a Nation Cope With Tragedy

The attack on America was a traumatic event, and the mental health of the nation is bound to feel its effects for a long time. Dr. Elizabeth Carll, a trauma psychologist, has provided counseling during several public crises including the Oklahoma City bombing, the crash of TWA flight 800, and the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. She offered some advice on the Early Show on how to cope mentally.

Everyone is going to feel an impact because the attack was the first of its kind in this lifetime, and the death toll is 100 times that of Oklahoma City, said Dr. Carll.

Those that have lost loved ones will feel the impact for the rest of their lives. Others feel a secondary impact in what's happening to our nation, she explained. "We call that 'vicarious traumatization,'" she said, adding that the recovery time will take some time.

People may be experiencing the following symptoms right now:

  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Flashbacks ruminating.
  • Constant thoughts about the event.
  • Crying.

And worrying about such things as

  • Going to work--going into the city.
  • The well-being of loved ones in those areas.
  • Another possible terrorist attack.

Many are still in shock, but once we change focus from rescue to recovery, that would be a turning point.

Talk to friends, especially if you usually have difficulty sharing your feelings. But if a person does not want to talk about it, that is all right, too. "Some people may not be ready for a very long time, and it's important to respect those differences," said Dr. Carll.

A common sentiment seems to be that "the world feels different now." No one feels they're "back to normal." Yet Dr. Carll says it's certainly normal to feel abnormal. Life will come back to some semblance of normalcy.

"Many of us do think the whole world is troubled, and that is a normal perception. What will change is our recognition that we will do things to rebuild, ease the pain, and move forward," she said.

Her general advice: Try to maintain a normal routine with the understanding that it may be hard to concentrate. "The more we maintain a normal routine, the more secure we feel. If we change all that we normally do, it makes the situation feel that much more abnormal. So do what's doable, but understand there will be exceptions," she said.

Children should not be watching TV. "Children don't understand how this can happen, the way we can. The emphasis should be: 'While there are terrible people in the world, there are far many more people out there helping to make it a better world.' Make the focus on optimism," she said.

If children want to sleep with their parents, said Dr. Carll, "In a case like this, it's probably a normal thing for a few days a week. Parents need to recognize that their [children's] regression to immature behavior is temporary."

Finally, Dr. Carll said, memorial servies are very important. "It gives us a sense and a time to really focus on what has happened and to pay homage for all those that have helped and for all of those that we have lost." She also said memorial services are important in times of anniversaries--not just the first one, but the second, third, and fourth. "Often we forget how long it takes to recover from something like this, and for many of us it will take 3, 4, 5, 10, 20 [years] and perhaps the rest of our lives."
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