Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

DISTRESSED

The experts say it’s normal to have new fears and feel anxious after a tragedy of such proportions

JANE O’HARA October 1 2001
Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

DISTRESSED

The experts say it’s normal to have new fears and feel anxious after a tragedy of such proportions

JANE O’HARA October 1 2001

DISTRESSED

The experts say it’s normal to have new fears and feel anxious after a tragedy of such proportions

JANE O’HARA

Dee Dee Sung is no white-knuckle flyer. But when the 43-year-old financial expert and author arrived at Vancouver International Airport on Sept. 16 for a flight to Toronto, she felt overcome with dread. Under heightened security measures, she and hordes of other passengers were herded onto the third level of the airport parkade to wait as a single line snaked slowly towards ticketing agents in the terminal. Salvation Army workers were on hand with blankets, sandwiches and coffee. Athough Sung was almost 4,000 km from the sites of the terrorist bombing at New York City’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon five days earlier, she could not get the images of planes torpedoing the twin towers and people trapped in burning offices out of her head. The once-friendly skies seemed friendly no more. “I didn’t want to fly,” says Sung, a Vancouver native who now lives in Michigan. “After what happened in New York, nothing seemed safe anymore.” Such fears are a normal reaction to an enormous calamity, mental health experts say. Many Canadians have been psychologically shaken and emotionally destabilized. And not just by the catastrophic hijackings, but also by the continuing uncertainty of approaching war and the financial roiling in the stock markets and the economy. Across the country, therapists report that reactions to the attacks have consumed their regular counselling sessions. Patients seem transfixed by the tragedy. Suddenly, relationship issues and self-esteem problems seem trivial when stacked up against hijackings that claimed more than 6,800 lives. “Everybody wants to talk about this,” says Dr. George Fraser, a psychiatrist and medical director at the Ottawa Anxiety

and Trauma Clinic. “It has taken up most of my therapy sessions for a week.”

Some of Fraser’s patients expressed fear of tall buildings or feelings of guilt for having suspicions of all people from the Middle East. One said she feared a terrorist attack on Ottawa and, as a precaution, had hidden her valuables in the basement. “This is not a typical reaction,” says Fraser. “But people are afraid for their own safety, and worry that terrorism could hit them where they live.” Athough most Canadians were not directly affected by the attacks, experts believe continuous television coverage of the jetliners flying into the twin towers had a widespread emotional impact. It brought the horror of global terrorism into people’s living rooms. “I don’t know any other event where people have witnessed a manmade disaster like this live, in real time,” says Fraser, a psychiatrist since 1975. “We just don’t know what the long-term impact of this will be.”

Nor do they know what to call it. Labels like “vicarious trauma” and “radiated distress” are being tossed around to describe the amorphous nature of the psychological unease. Vancouver psychologist Kathy Simas categorizes the symptoms as a form of post-traumatic stress that can occur when people have witnessed violent assaults, unnatural deaths, accidents, war or other disasters.

While many people are coping and following their daily routine, others feel symptoms ranging from low-level anxiety, irritability and sadness to sleeplessness, nightmares and depression. Emotionally troubled people are more vulnerable than others. And for a small percentage of patients who have been through massive childhood trauma or experienced other life-threatening events, the U.S. attacks may have triggered a stronger reaction.

Simas sees two distinct responses to the tragedies of Sept. 11. Some people are glued to their television sets and can’t stop watching the coverage. Others have gone on an information strike, refusing to watch or read anything about the events. Simas believes the sheer enormity of the attacks was a prime factor in destabilizing people. “This was on a completely different level from either the Oklahoma bombing or the Montreal massacre,” said Simas. “People just couldn’t make sense of it.” When she took her regular day off on Friday, Sept. 14, she, too, felt the impact of what had happened. After watching the Parliament Hill memorial service for the victims, she went to the bank to make a mortgage payment. When a teller asked her how she was feeling, “I just started crying,” she says.

In Toronto, Dr. Brian Hoffman, chief of psychiatry at North York General Hospital, says that while the most common reaction was a feeling of sadness or grief, many people felt irritable and angry in the immediate aftermath, their nerves like trip wires. “We’re all on edge and having heightened emotionality because of this,” he says. “Right now, a lot of people want to direct their anger at something. But it’s like kicking the dog after a bad day at work.”

As the traumatic effects of the terrorist attacks dissipate, experts are concerned that instability in the economy and preparations for war will exacerbate people’s fears and insecurities. “We will continue to be bombarded by news, of dead bodies and potential war,” says Hoffman. “This is not going to go away. It’s going to be a balancing act between trying to get on with our lives and being obsessed by what happened.” ED