Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

Psychiatry Plays Key Role in Relief Effort

Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

Psychiatry Plays Key Role in Relief Effort

Article excerpt

When a terrorist attack destroyed New York's World Trade Center, psychiatrists mobilized to deal with widening circles of trauma. Augmenting the efforts of the American Red Cross and city agencies, psychiatric departments in hospitals across Manhattan provided counseling and support for survivors of the attack, for families of missing people, and for stunned and distraught individuals in the community. The New York Psychoanalytic Institute deployed outreach therapists throughout Manhattan.

"We counseled and trained mental health professionals who didn't have experience dealing with disasters and traumatic stress ... and sent them out to do whatever needed to be done," said Dr. Asher Aladjem, director of the consultation-liaison service and chief psychiatrist for the Program for Survivors of Torture at Bellevue Hospital Center, New York.

Disaster Psychiatry Outreach (DPO), a New York-based organization that promotes effective psychiatric response to catastrophic situations, was deeply involved. Alone among mental health workers, "psychiatrists can give medication on site," said Dr. Anthony Ng, board member of DPO and clinical director for its operations in the World Trade Center disaster. "We can do more overall assessment and address medical as well as psychological needs."

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, one DPO focus was "looking at how operations were being run [by the American Red Cross and other groups] ... suggesting logistical changes in emergency procedures that were enhancing stress, and offering strategies to minimize burnout," he said.

DPO placed psychiatrists in the armory where family members sought information about the missing. "They had to spend a lot of time waiting and then go through lists of names and give detectives information about their loved ones--it was extremely stressful. We did some simple counseling in the armory and on the lines outside.... Red Cross workers would occasionally send us someone who was on the way to becoming hysterical," Dr. Ng said.

Persons directly involved in the rescue effort "had the stress of exposure to terrible sights and worries about their own safety," Dr. Aladjem said. "For rescue workers who weren't finding any live people, it was like being a doctor whose patients all die. When everything you do doesn't help, the constant disappointment is one of the most difficult things to bear."

Psychiatrists identified overwhelming stress symptoms and provided counseling for rescue workers who had pushed themselves for 12 hours and more, to the point of exhaustion. …

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