What Did American Psychologists Get Wrong in the Wake of 9/11?

The New York Times this past week featured an interesting piece, previewing an upcoming special issue of the journal American Psychologist.  The issue will feature analysis and assessments from psychologists of the shortcomings of psychology and psychotherapy revealed over the past ten years since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.  Among other things, notes Times reporter Benedict Carey, studies show that mental health interventions were not terribly well coordinated in the aftermath of the attacks.

Chaos reigned in the New York area after the twin towers fell, both on the streets and in the minds of many mental health professionals who felt compelled to help but were unsure how. Therapists by the dozens volunteered their services, eager to relieve the suffering of anyone who looked stricken. Freudian analysts installed themselves at fire stations, unbidden and unpaid, to help devastated firefighters. Employee assistance programs offered free therapy, warning of the consequences of letting people grieve on their own.

Some given treatment undoubtedly benefited, researchers say, but others became annoyed or more upset. At least one commentator referred to therapists’ response as ‘trauma tourism.’

‘We did a case study in New York and couldn’t really tell if people had been helped by the providers — but the providers felt great about it,’ said Patricia Watson, a co-author of one of the articles and associate director of the terrorism and disaster programs at the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. ‘It makes sense; we know that altruism makes people feel better.’


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