Viewers witness stages of reaction on TV
By JOHN GRAY, Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, September 14, 2001
On television screens around the world, the pathology of a national disaster is reflected in a thousand faces. Bitter tears. Blank and bleak silence. Halting phrases. A scream for vengeance. A flood of words and a weird, disconnected half-smile.
In the endless hours since Tuesday morning, television has replaced Psychology 101 for the study of the progressive stages of reaction to catastrophe.
Shock, denial, grief that spills over, the depression of mourning, anger about what happened and the need for retribution, and then back to denial.
Among those endless hours, one of the most disturbing images was of a woman whose husband had been buried somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon. She was watching the firefighters from afar. With binoculars.
She just felt she had to be there, she explained in an earnest but oddly matter-of-fact way, because if they found him she wanted to be there to get a signal to him and let him know she was there.
For Jamie Sutherland, a clinical psychotherapist, the arresting image was of a young man who had been talking to his girlfriend after she was trapped in one of the World Trade Center towers. He told the story quite evenly, with no visible emotion, caught in a profound shock. Everything was controlled. Eventually there would be depression, but for the moment, there was no sign of it.
Among Dr. Sutherland's students at Sheridan College in Brampton, Ont., there is not yet a mood of vengeance.
They are more like the New York firefighters who sit in dumb disbelief, as though they were caught up in a Hollywood extravaganza, a King Kong movie.
Dr. Sutherland noted that not everyone was so controlled. From others there have been tears, rage and threats to avenge the slaughter. His fear is that the microreactions on television will soon be seen on a macro scale. "The anger is going to be coming out. That certainly will be one of the phases."
Beyond the anger that may or may not find itself driving U.S. President George W. Bush and the American political leadership, there will be a profound and lingering impact for thousands, or perhaps millions, of more humble citizens.
"In terms of mental-health services, it's going to be a huge job coming up for months and months and months," he said. "Traumatic things can be dealt with. We defend against them so that it softens the blow and we kind of put them in a little box somewhere, safe, so that we can carry on with our lives. But if that little box opens, it leaks.
"There will be people who will right away seek therapeutic intervention, and that's a healthy thing. There are lots [of people] who start developing all kinds of things; they can be psychosomatic or night terrors, or depression. There will be a lot of depression.
"There will be a sense of guilt -- I've survived this, and this other person didn't, and in that sense of guilt there is a risk of suicide. People feel unworthy, that they shouldn't have survived it."
Nobody is immune to the devastating effects of the shock. On the day after the disaster, Joni Johnston, a clinical psychologist, offered her own testimonial on the Internet: "I almost ran over a lady at a crosswalk. I forgot a doctor's appointment and yelled at my six-year-old for no reason. And, during a weight class at my gym, I started crying. When I was a clinician in private practice, I would have been concerned about a serious depression if a therapy client had reported these events to me during a session. Yesterday, they were normal."
Sheryl Regehr, a professor at the University of Toronto school of social work, has made a study of air disasters and she knows the impact they can have on the lives of even those only peripherally involved.
Most of the time, most people wander around with a sense of invulnerability. Then something like the events on Tuesday happens and their sense of invulnerability is shattered. The disruption of normal lives -- airport closings, office buildings thousands of kilometres away shut down, disruption of commerce -- increases that sense of vulnerability.
Individually, the trauma of events such as those on Tuesday may be felt for a month or two or three. How long the collective drama will be felt throughout the United States, nobody knows.
Dr. Regehr is not surprised at stories of anger in the U.S. It is only natural in such circumstances that people come together as a national community and in doing so draw lines between us and them, proclaiming that the others don't understand.
One of the characteristics of disasters is people feel as though they have lost control. Their response is to try to regain that control.
Canadians are not accustomed to feeling helpless, and Americans are especially not accustomed to feeling helpless.Dr. Regehr believes that that will drive the political reaction in the United States.