The Aftermath of Trauma: How a Mental Health Community Responds

Traumatic events are naturally stressful on our bodies and on our minds. Feelings of fear, helplessness, anxiety, and emotional distress are generally common in populations exposed to trauma and these symptoms can last for many months and even years. Whether natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, or man-made disasters, such as September 11th, statistics show that about 10% of the US population will experience a disaster at some point in their lives. For many people, symptoms of stress subside within a few weeks. Some people, however, continue to experience a strong psychological response to trauma, months and years later. It is the responsibility of the mental health field to ensure that communities are educated and informed about mental health risks and to provide long-term mental health care and support.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, New Yorkers exposed to the attacks had to cope with the physical and emotional toll of these events. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of the most common long-term mental health conditions exhibited by those exposed to 9/11/01. According to the NYC World Trade Center Health Registry, an approximate 410,000 individuals experienced firsthand exposure to the World Trade Center Disaster. Of these, an approximate 16% exhibited symptoms of PTSD two to three years after the attacks. Despite the high rates of PTSD that followed 9/11, rates were actually lower than those expected after the attacks. This may have been due to the coming together of the mental health community in New York City.

Following 9/11, non-profits throughout New York provided much needed resources and assistance to those affected. In collaboration with the American Red Cross and the September 11th Fund, the Mental Health Association of New York City (MHA of NYC) was instrumental in making mental health care affordable and accessible to those exposed to the World Trade Center attacks. Today, MHA of NYC continues to offer assistance to New York City residents that are still feeling emotional reactions to the events of 9/11/01. Together with the NYC Department of Health & Mental Hygiene, the MHA of NYC is administering the NYC 9/11 Benefit Program, which provides NYC residents with financial assistance for outpatient mental health and substance use services. The steady support provided by the MHA of NYC to 9/11 survivors is a model for the kind of support that should be included in disaster recovery plans.

After 9/11, the MHA of NYC continued to be of support to mental health communities nation-wide. In September of 2006, the MHA of NYC was once again called upon by the American Red Cross, this time to provide mental health benefit services to the Gulf Coast. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina did more than just change the physical landscape of the Gulf Coast; it changed the way of life for many people in the area. The MHA of NYC was able to respond to the mental health needs of this community by establishing a 24-hour call center that offered referrals to local services and also enrolled clients for mental health benefits offered by the Red Cross. More recently, the MHA of NYC assisted call centers in Texas following Hurricane Ike.

As natural disasters are inevitable and unpredictable, it is important for mental health communities to be prepared to manage the consequences that follow such events. Although communities that are directly impacted bear the bulk of stressors, trauma can also affect many communities indirectly. Following 9/11, the United States witnessed an overall increase in stress-related symptoms. Within a week of the September 11th attacks, 44% of US adults reported feeling “substantial” symptoms of stress.

Regardless of causative events, the lifetime prevalence rate for PTSD in the United States is 8%. For many individuals with pre-existing conditions, additional stressors and/or trauma exacerbate symptoms and further impair functionality. If left untreated, the consequences of PTSD have great implications for societal wellbeing. Research indicates that individuals with PTSD have higher rates of suicide and hospitalizations, will be more inclined to abuse alcohol and other drugs, and will have higher utilization rates of medical services.

As Americans continue to heal, it is important to search out resources available in our communities. Statistics report that an unprecedented one in every five people needs mental health care at some point during their lives. Thousands of families and individuals in New York City and throughout the country have benefited from the services of the MHA of NYC. With the resources they provide nationwide, Americans can begin to heal.

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