September 13, 2011


9/11: What else it taught us: From mathematics to psychology, how the attacks changed what we know. (Leon Neyfakh, September 10, 2011, Boston Globe)

Volunteer therapists and social workers streamed into New York City in the wake of 9/11, providing counseling they hoped would reduce people's chances of developing post-traumatic stress disorder. Many of them came wielding a then-popular treatment technique known as "debriefing," built on the notion that people should talk about what they've been through instead of bottling it up. Some psychologists warned of a national epidemic of PTSD, arguing that even people who had watched the events on TV--as opposed to witnessing them firsthand--were at risk of permanent psychological damage from what they'd seen.

Richard McNally, a psychologist specializing in trauma at Harvard, saw what mental health professionals were doing in New York, and grew concerned. McNally knew that research conducted during the 1990s had shown that debriefing was at best ineffective, and at worst actually slowed people's recovery. Several days after the attacks, he teamed up with 18 other psychologists, including the influential trauma and anxiety scholar Edna Foa from the University of Pennsylvania, and drafted a public letter to colleagues in the profession imploring them to think twice before rushing in to "debrief" people affected by the attacks. "As psychologists, our instinct is to help, and indeed there is much we can do,'' said the letter, which was widely publicized. "But in times like this it is imperative that we refrain from the urge to intervene in ways that--however well intentioned--have the potential to make matters worse."

In the years after the attacks, a growing body of research, including an influential paper in Psychological Science coauthored by McNally in 2003, began suggesting that most people are much more resilient to trauma than previously thought. They might be shaken, or upset, or scared right after something terrible happens, said Columbia University psychologist George Bonanno, who has conducted resilience research. "But as far as trauma, most people are symptom-free....They are able to continue functioning without missing a beat."

3,000 Americans had to die to teach psychiatrists they're useless?

Posted by at September 13, 2011 7:02 PM

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