Peoria Journal Star

September 11, 2006

Memorials may help families cope


WASHINGTON, D.C. - The memorials and other special programs observing the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks may help those who are still wrestling with the painful memories.

"One of the things that helps people recover is to feel understood," said disaster psychiatrist Edward Kantor of the University of Virginia School of Medicine. "If people are not paying attention . . . it could have an impact in terms of if you feel connected or not."

That's especially true in the case of those who lost loved ones at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, which are usually overshadowed in the news by the World Trade Center attacks, which killed far more people and destroyed iconic towers.

". . . Sometimes I wonder if they've forgotten there were lives lost in three different spots," said Patricia Grooss-Getzfred, formerly of Morton, whose husband died at the Pentagon that day.

Most people who live through disasters recover fully after going through the grieving process, Kantor said. Only a small percentage are affected by post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, which affects their ability to function.

Disaster psychiatrists are recognizing that there isn't a one-size-fits-all treatment program.

Sept. 11: Five Years Later

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"The reactions tend to be very individual. No two people respond the same way," Kantor said. "Some people do better with support from their church. Other people follow a psychotherapy model and want to talk about it. Others who are pushed to talk develop more symptoms and get worse."

Because the Sept. 11 attacks were broadcast repeatedly throughout the world, a large number of people, even television viewers, were affected.

Yet that coverage also brought wide support for the survivors and the acknowledgment that "it's OK to feel bad," which is key to recovery, said Kantor, who is a co-author of the recently released "Psychological First Aid Field Operations Guide," approved by the U.S. Surgeon General's Office.

"Every disaster is unique, and we try to learn from one and then extrapolate it to the next. Each time, we find there are characteristics that we didn't expect, or things or nuances that make it a little bit different," he said.

Since 9-11, disaster psychiatry experts have rejected the once commonly used technique of debriefing, in which people are encouraged to recount in detail their experiences. After the terrorist attacks, debriefing specialists were sent to New York City to encourage firefighters and police officers to recount their experiences in an effort to prevent PTSD.

"As evidence evolved, we learned that some people are actually harmed by that," Kantor said.

Dori Meinert can be reached at (202) 737-7686 or