Psychological and Emotional Reactions of College Students to September 11, 2001

Article excerpt

This study, using the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CES-D), investigated the moods, perceptions, and behavioral changes among college students during the week following September 11 and again 11 weeks later. Originally, we had planned to survey college students using the CES-D on September 12th and 13th as part of a pilot study of college students and depression; however, due to the terrorist attacks of September 11, we postponed the survey and administered the scale on September 19th and 20th. This provided a unique opportunity to describe students' reactions to the terrorist attacks of September 11. The study, conducted at a small liberal arts college in central Virginia, included students enrolled in four sections of a general education course. Students were administered the CES-D one week (n = 89) and again 11 weeks (n = 75) after 9/11. We report the results of the 75 students who responded to both surveys. A significant difference was found between week one and week eleven on the overall CES-D score. Multiple comparisons using the Bonferroni method found significant differences in 6 of the 20 items of the scale. The findings indicate that 9/11 took a heavy toll on immediate psychological and emotional health. Most students' depressive symptoms subsided after 11 weeks. Colleges and universities, in planning for possible future attacks, should be prepared to identify and assist students experiencing trauma-related stress, anxiety, or depressive symptoms, as well as be alert to the possibility of lingering anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder in some students.


The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the subsequent threats of biological and chemical terrorism, and the ongoing random violence on civilians around the globe, present a new challenge to "helping" professionals. Research following the 9/11 events provided new information concerning both the physical and mental health effects of such disasters. As a result, many first responders, public health practitioners, environmental health specialists, mental health counselors, teachers, and other service-oriented professionals are preparing for future terrorist-related emergencies (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2002; Schonfeld, 2002; Susser, Herman & Aaron, 2002). The present study measures reactions in a group of undergraduate college students at one week and again at eleven weeks after September 11. The authors of this study hope their findings will aid colleges and universities in their preparation of practical strategies for identifying and alleviating the various forms of mental suffering that a poignant awareness of catastrophe may give rise to in student populations.

Following September 11, at least three major nation-wide studies were conducted to determine the emotional and psychological impact on Americans of the terrorist attacks. Within one week of the attacks, the Washington-based Pew Research Center had surveyed 1200 Americans from across the country, finding that 71% felt depressed, 50% experienced difficulty concentrating, and 33% experienced trouble sleeping (The Pew Research Center for People & The Press, 2001). Three to five days after the attacks, Schuster and colleagues (2001) interviewed 560 adults, finding that 44% experienced one or more substantial stress symptoms, 14% reported substantial difficulty concentrating, and 11% experienced substantial sleep difficulties. One to two months after the attacks, Schlenger and colleagues (2002) administered a web-based survey to 2273 adults and found that 11% of the New York City dwellers, 2.7% of the Washington, D.C. residents, and 4% of the country overall exhibited probable Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD].

Besides these three nation-wide surveys, Galea and colleagues (2002) assessed New York City residents five to eight weeks after September 11, finding that 7.5% reported symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of current PTSD, 9. …


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