Nationwide Trauma
Nationwide Trauma

Nationwide Trauma

Nearly 3,000 people died in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Families lost loved ones, students lost friends, first responders lost colleagues. America was traumatized.

September 29, 2016


At least 10,000 firefighters, police officers and civilians exposed to the attacks have post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the city’s three 9/11 health programs as reported by The New York Times in 2011. These symptoms include insomnia, paranoia, flashbacks, emotional numbness and a sense of hopelessness.

The tragedy greatly impacted lower Manhattan residents. Those living south of Canal Street, near ground zero, were three times more likely to experience symptoms of mental illness, per a 2002 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. Research estimates as many as 67,000 New York City residents experienced PTSD and 87,000 had depression in the weeks following 9/11.

“The most common problem we saw following 9/11 was PTSD,” Dr. JoAnn Difede, director of the Program of Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Studies (PATSS), told “Even 15 years later, it still exists.”

PATSS is a trauma initiative within Weill Cornell Medical College’s Department of Psychiatry. It provides evidence-based treatment approaches to patients with mental health disorders. Difede said the program has seen numerous New Yorkers affected by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, including police officers, firefighters, construction workers and area residents who saw the planes crash into the towers.

Dr. Margaret Dessau witnessed the attacks. She heard the boom of a plane crashing into the first tower from her New York City apartment, eight blocks from the twin towers. In its aftermath, she had trouble sleeping and concentrating. She still replays the disaster in her mind and, as of August 2011, attends therapy regularly.

Esperanza Muñoz also saw the tragedy from a distance. Today, she battles constant flashbacks and nightmares. Her anxiety flares up at the sound of sirens or a passing plane. By 2009, she had twice attempted suicide. She cannot step foot in New York City without experiencing panic.

Dessau and Muñoz are far from alone in their struggles. A 2014 study by Columbia University found a high prevalence of PTSD and depression among survivors. The group consisted of rescue and recovery workers, New York City residents or area employees and passersby on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

However, individuals need not have witnessed the attacks to experience trauma. Newscasts replayed video footage of the tragedies on loop for months. Many Americans identified with the victims or may have had loved ones living in the New York City area. Others saw this as not just an attack on New York — but on the entire United States.

Just days after the attacks, researchers at Rand Corporation interviewed 560 U.S. adults at random and assessed their reactions to the events. Forty-four percent of participants experienced at least one substantial symptom of PTSD, such as disturbing memories or difficulty concentrating.

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