Prepare yourself
for 9/11 distress

Counselors warn that the attack
anniversary may revive emotions

By Helen Altonn

Anniversary observances of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks may reactivate the emotional distress people experienced last year, mental health officials and counselors warn.

We Remember

The Suicide and Crisis Center staff is being doubled to prepare for possible "adverse reaction feelings," said Dr. Kenneth Luke, medical director at Helping Hands Hawaii, which operates the center.

After the tragic events last year, he said, "We saw a jump in the number of crisis calls we were getting, almost as if the American public suffered a collective anxiety and depressive reaction to what happened.

"What we're watching out for is anniversary reaction as 9/11 approaches. With TV coverage and what's portrayed in the media ... it may bring back the same feelings of depression, anger, helplessness and fear very powerfully. Maybe more powerfully than people might expect ... just as if it were happening once again."

Catherine Bruns, Child and Family Service counselor for Hawaii Employee Assistance Services, said people may experience a lot of emotion, becoming irritable and upset, without realizing it is linked to the anniversary.

If they lost loved ones or friends, "they could expect the whole grief response again," she said. Post-traumatic stress symptoms, nightmares or flashbacks may occur, she said.

Her advice is to "avoid disturbing images" presented by the media. "People probably don't need to watch the trade centers falling down again over and over and over."

Natalia Lopez, Catholic Charities therapeutic services counselor, advised finding a support system. "If the family is involved, great. If not, seek other support in the community."

She said residents should recognize this is potentially a very stressful time and take care of themselves by going for walks, doing things with loved ones or other activities "that make them feel good."

The grieving process, which is important for closure, can be accomplished in various ways, the counselors say.

"Rituals are a really good way for people to feel they're doing something, putting closure on the event," Bruns said. "It could be anything from a personal moment of silence to participating in a large group memorial activity and anything in between ... The importance of the ritual is to acknowledge a large event occurred and help people cope and put closure on things."

Lopez said parents should talk to their children about the anniversary and help them process feelings. Children who were traumatized by Sept. 11 pictures shouldn't be allowed to see them again, she said.

"If it's tough for parents to watch, you can bet it's tough for the kids. They can read their parent's body language."

Bruns said parents should have some kind of discussion with their kids, such as: "'This is an important day for us; this is what happened last year, and this is what we need to remember about this year.'"

If kids see planes crashing into the World Trade Center on TV they may think it's actually happening again, she pointed out. "Parents need to be clear with younger kids that this isn't happening right now."

Planning ahead may help, said Ben Carroll, board president for the Mental Health Association in Hawaii.

The Mental Health Association and Child and Family Service offer these suggestions:

>> Limit television exposure, especially for young children.
>> Do something positive, such as giving blood or volunteering your time.
>> Get a lot of rest and exercise, avoid excessive drinking and risk-taking activities.
>> Ask someone for help if you feel overwhelmed. If feelings of sadness and anxiety persist, seek professional help.

Look for these signs indicating stress in children: Fear of leaving the house or going to school. Loss of interest in friends and activities. Acting out. Difficulty concentrating. Persistent nightmares. Talk of death or suicide. Irritability or anger. New fears about such things as airplanes, tall buildings, tunnels or being alone.

Give children facts, assure them they are safe and plan activities to keep them occupied, the groups advise.

Mental health officials point out that the months after Sept. 11 "allowed us to see the strength of the human spirit in a new light, having experienced an extraordinarily horrific event and witnessing the courage and compassion of people closest to the tragedies."

Bruns urges residents to be compassionate toward themselves and others. "People heal at different rates and do it in different ways. Some people are not even going to want to participate in the anniversary."


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